Cyrus is a seriously funny film. Now, normally, you shouldn’t need to be told that a film is funny – it should be self-evident, and certainly as far as Cyrus is concerned, the comedic potential of the film is abundantly clear from the trailer and from an outline of the situation – but, it seems to be the case more often now that films do indeed have to make their premise as broad and as wacky as possible in order for the audience to register that it’s supposed to be a comedy. Look at how films like Pineapple Express or The Other Guys (both certainly with genuinely funny moments) descend into over-the-top mayhem – you’re not going to mistake either of them for a serious film. Look at Dinner for Schmucks – you might not know the original French film Dîner de Cons is funny from the name or the poster, but the US remake has Steve Carrell looking wide-eyed and wacky, so it must be funny. Where does this leave films that try to be seriously funny, films that look at the absurdities of everyday life and relationships and find humour in them without having to wink broadly to the audience and descend into comic mayhem? Sadly, the danger is that they end up in some kind of limbo.
The situation outlined in Cyrus is indeed one with a great deal of potential for some knockabout comedy of embarrassment. John (John C. Reilly) is a bit of a loser, who is down on his luck, his ex-wife about to remarry, leaving him at an awkward age to start dating again and not really having the looks or the charm to start over again. He can’t believe his luck then that a gorgeously attractive woman he meets at a party is interested in him, particularly as he has already reached the point of giving up and is just proceeding to get wasted. Of course, there must be a catch, and there is. What Molly (Marisa Tomei) is hiding from him is not that she already has a husband or a boyfriend, but a son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill) – a twenty-two year old son, who is still uncomfortably close to his mom, quite happy living at home, and doesn’t need some older guy moving in and spoiling the whole arrangement.
That’s a situation that you could expect to see someone traditional like Ben Stiller fitting into – in a Meet the Parents or an Along Came Polly situation of relationship and family awkwardness – and with someone like Ben Stiller in the role, the viewer would know exactly where they stand. Not so much with John C. Reilly. And, surprisingly, not so much either with Jonah Hill, since rather than playing the broad Judd Apatow adolescent, he plays the awkward situation of the weird kid surprisingly straight (even his music isn't bad, the writers avoiding an obvious cheap shot), getting in the way of the new couple’s growing closeness, trying to undermine the relationship and scare John off in subtle ways. And if subtle doesn’t work, as the two men start square up to each other, trying to make the other look foolish without letting themselves down in front of Molly by appearing to be unreasonable, there’s always the option of outright aggression, isn’t there?
Well, yes – that’s what you would expect in an American comedy film of this kind, but Jay and Mark Duplass come from a different place, and feel that they can still get the full humour out of the situation, as well as the underlying poignancy, without having to descend into the traditional crowd-pleasing knockabout farce. It’s no coincidence that the subject that the Duplass brothers use for their move from independent to more mainstream cinema, is one that seems to be natural for several other filmmakers making the same move. If any filmmakers are to make the creative leap from the independent, or ultra-indie ‘mumblecore’ scene of inarticulate adolescents to a more mature style, there’s some growing up to be done. Azazel Jacobs covered similar territory in Momma’s Man, where a grown man regresses back to childhood interest on a visit to his parents and has to find a way of reassuming the responsibilities of adulthood. The subject is also there to a large extent in the latest Noah Baumbach film, Greenberg, which does indeed star Ben Stiller (and coincidentally, Mark Duplass), and similarly treats its comedy seriously.
As with the two above-named films, what is wonderful about Cyrus, is how Jay and Mark Duplass successfully make the leap to mainstream while retaining the sensibilities that made their low-budget independent films so refreshing in the first place. It’s not so much the look and feel of the film – which does tend to over-emphasise the shaky handheld qualities through jerky zooms seemingly just to retain indie credibility – as much as the attitude. Cyrus never gives in to viewer expectations or Hollywood expectations of playing into the hands of broad comedy, and is all the better for it. The use of professional actors proves key to making this work, putting lie to the notion that you need awkward non-professionals to be “authentic”. When the script is as subtle and funny as this, it needs strong performers who are capable of drawing out the complexities of the mixed emotions, and Reilly, Hill and Tomei are all outstanding, their smallest gestures and facial expressions caught in close-up shots – even when deadpan – without having to make their feelings explicit in dramatic confrontations or over-explanatory dialogue. Mark and Jay Duplass have shown that US indie filmmaking is prepared to grow-up, but it’s by no means certain that Hollywood and its audiences are ready to do the same.