Movie Information

The Story: A middle-aged man finds his burgeoning romance with an attractive woman undermined by her overly attached grown son. The Lowdown: It's the mumblecore mind-set applied to a somewhat different story and with better actors than usual, but the result is still reels and reels of not very interesting talk adrift in crude cinematic style.
Genre: Mumblecore Rom-Com
Director: Jay and Mark Duplass
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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7 thoughts on “Cyrus

  1. Anandaji

    I loved this film! The acting was superb with all four leads. It’s a subtle little jewel of a film. How can you go wrong with Marisa Tomie? Well, you can’t. She always brings it all to the table… and she is stunning to look at with any kind of lighting.

    If you’ve had enough 3D and Hollywood Special Effects this summer (and who hasn’t) I highly recommend this film. At first I was a little put-off by the hand-held camera work, but before I knew it I felt like I was standing in the room witnessing the whole story unfold.

  2. Ken Hanke

    If you’ve had enough 3D and Hollywood Special Effects this summer

    There are plenty of alternatives that aren’t Cyrus, but this is a love it or loathe it movie. I’ve had 50-50 of people not agreeing with me and people telling me they wished they’d waited for my review before going.

  3. Clive T. Miller

    I guess you’re right to give it 2 stars, but only if you’re using a scale of 1 – 10. The camera work is atrocious, and it’s hard to get past that, because it gives a headache and then keeps calling attention to itself to give a bigger headache. The dialogue is trite, the acting is uninspired. Even if the individual actors are believable, the relationship between Reilly and Tomei is not. When Reilly finally does explain what’s going on to Tomei, it’s something he should have done at the beginning. If that had happened, then the filmmakers really would have had to figure out what the characters are about and what kind of film they wanted to make. The basic premise, of a 21-year-old immature son’s being jealous and insecure about his mother’s forming a relationship with an adult her age or older, is perfectly fine. Its success has to be in its telling. Stumbling sentences and stumbling cinematography do not convince us that what we’re seeing is profound, but only that the filmmakers are searching for a way to get hold of a story they haven’t a handle on.

  4. Stephen M. Rapp

    When I heard the Cranky review, I suspected I would probably like the film. I did.

    The studio obviously didn’t, based on the way they tried to market it. The trailer is so misleading it’s almost a joke.

    I was first of all thrown off by it’s strong independent style. I was a little dubious of the hand held camera, but what the hell. I think those that don’t like the film would be those who do not want to acknowledge, the difficulty of trying to be an honest and good person. The characters all have back stories that have brought them to a place where past, failed personality traits used in establishing relationships are abandoned for the desire for something real and honest, even if it means the cost is to be alone. If you’re uncomfortable with that, then minimize and disregard it by calling it “Mumblecore.”

    You can argue the success of the writers and directors, in achieving a masterpiece, but it’s nice to see someone trying bring to the screen someone in this fricking world, that has some core values and honesty. This is a very psychologically complex triad. It’s refreshing to see someone on screen fighting for what they want and still remain whole. The fact that they love each other in ways seldom brought to screen, would obviously offend cynics and failed lovers.

  5. Ken Hanke

    The fact that they love each other in ways seldom brought to screen, would obviously offend cynics and failed lovers.

    I’m not offended by that. I simply don’t buy the characters, don’t like them and don’t care about them. And I hate the — to me — lazy filmmaking style. I’m sorry, but the camera grinding away endlessly while someone works a zoom lens like it’s his first time out with a home movie camera just doesn’t impress me.

  6. Me

    Ken i know you haven’t liked a single mumblecore film you’ve seen, and rightfully so there not all great, but what about this emergence of all these new neorealism films that have been coming out lately are you into any of those?

  7. Jim D

    I went to see Cyrus based on rotten tomatoes rating. I had just returned from a trip up north (Minnesota) where the papers had given this film one of its highest ratings. I missed Ken’s recommendations on WWNC, so I blindly followed the tomato meter. No more… If Ken says don’t waste your time, I won’t.

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