I had hoped—based on what some of the reviewers were saying—that the Duplass brothers had branched out beyond their mumblecore aesthetic. Unfortunately, all this really means is that the film boasts some professional actors and that the night scenes are merely under-lit, not virtually unlit. I haven’t spent a more tedious 90 minutes in a theater since the last time I sat through something labeled “mumblecore.”
If you don’t know, mumblecore is a film movement that eschews traditional production values in favor of hand-held camerawork, rudimentary lighting, improvised dialogue and apparently little in the way of acting. The idea is that this is “honest” and that it will reach some kind of “truth,” which sounds like pretentious codswallop to me. All I’m seeing is amateurishness writ large. The camerawork, with its herky-jerky zooming in and out to no discernible point, doesn’t make it “real” (come on, guys, this method looked like rubbish when Roger Vadim “pioneered” the look in the 1960s). Awkward performances are just that. And bland uninteresting dialogue is something I can go hear any day of the week at the DMV for free, though I can’t imagine why I’d want to.
Apart from being a process through which people with absolutely no sign of actual talent get to make movies, I see no reason for the existence of mumblecore—and that hardly strikes me as a good reason. Others, however, strongly disagree with my assessment of mumblecore as one of the worst things ever to afflict the movies. This is easily demonstrated by the film’s 80 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s fine, but it does nothing to alter my feelings on the movement in general or this film in particular.
I give the film some credit, because it does depart from the standard mumblecore story line involving laterally mobile twentysomethings endlessly discussing the terminal ennui of their lives. Instead, it works from a more traditional, less navel-gazing-centered plot. Here we find John (John C. Reilly), a 40-ish-year-old guy with all the charisma of a wet sack of farina. He has been divorced from Jamie (Catherine Keener) for seven years, but plummets from self-indulgent slobdom to full-scale depression when she announces she is getting remarried. This changes when Jamie forces John to go to exactly the sort of dreary party I’d expect to be envisioned by mumblecore movie makers. There he mystifyingly attracts Molly (Marisa Tomei) when she catches him taking a leak in the shrubbery. “Nice penis,” Molly remarks, and though we don’t see it for ourselves, it must be a lulu, since there has to be some reason for her interest.
All this might be wonderful except that Molly has a 20-odd-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), living with her in what can only be described as a creepily close relationship. Cyrus pretends to be all charm and goodwill towards John, but is actually threatened by his intrusion into his world and is out to rid himself of the interloper. It takes John an improbably long time to figure this out and engage Cyrus in a clandestine battle for Molly’s attention. That’s the central concept of the film. The cleverest thing about it lies in the fact that Cyrus’ attachment to his mother isn’t really any different from John’s attachment to his ex-wife, but nothing is really made of this. And nothing surprising or edgy or particularly funny results.
The film is mostly a lot of talk—and most of the talk attests to the fact that great dialogue is generally written and not made up by the actors as they go along. In fact, in this case, letting the actors improvise mostly results in making them look as amateurish as the film’s camerawork. But remember, my feelings about the film don’t reflect the critical majority, so you may get more out of Cyrus than I did. Rated R for language and sexual material.