The graphic take of The Color Wheel (2011) on family love was a not-so-subtle signal that Alex Ross Perry had little desire to court a mainstream audience. As previously discussed in this series, an open sense of rebellion against the groupthink of Hollywood big-budget filmmaking helped to made the idea of mumblecore attractive: absent worries about the bottom line, filmmakers could create more experimental and idiosyncratic stories. Scenes that tested the understanding and/or patience of an audience (the commercial kiss of death) were often featured; obvious plot points were usually discarded. As the movement took flight, it became a sort of magnetic pole for many promising and talented filmmakers. Hollywood studios, always on the lookout for the next big thing, started to take these smaller, more personal films seriously.
Like The Color Wheel, the film we will now discuss pushes against the definition of mumblecore. Made one year earlier, it also portrays the theme of family love in an extreme way, but finds ways to marry its thematic riffs and loose, improvised structure to a freewheeling Hollywood comedy.
“Acting Out”: Cyrus
(Duplass Bros. 2010)
Can a film with a seven million dollar budget still be considered mumblecore? Besides the budget, the film’s happy ending (compared to the previous two films reviewed in this series) does reduce dramatic ambiguity to more favorable levels for Hollywood. Yet the functional rather than fancy camera work puts the stamp of this genre onto every frame.
What Cyrus promises and delivers upon is letting audiences witness exciting and dynamic performances by established actors who are rarely given such license. Everything that happens in the film is based around this idea.
Scenes were filmed in sequence, allowing actors to build their roles. As John, John C. Reilly effortlessly gives the impression of a forty-something divorced man down in the dumps, dragged to a party by his ex-wife, then completely overwhelmed by the possibilities of a second chance at love when he meets Molly. His energy level bouncing up and down, keyed to every single word and look from her, allows him to dominate the early scenes. As Molly, Marisa Tomei uses her character’s bravado in deciding to take a chance with John to hide her fear of change.
John’s entering into Molly’s life causes Cyrus, her home-schooled son, to react as if she were rejecting him. At the age of 21, he has, needless to say, an arrested view of his relationship with his mother. Playing the role of Cyrus, Jonah Hill, when he enters the film, has a robotic stare that appears far too creepy to convince us that he is on the level. But John, with starry-eyed optimism, is taken in, even to the point where he tries to somehow get his head around the tedious music (one-finger New-Age synthesizer patterns set to the rhythmic burps of a drum machine that sounds programmed by a burnout from one too many rave parties) that Cyrus spends his time at home composing.
Early on, perhaps too predictably so, a clue to Cyrus’s scheming emerges. Yet John’s discovery that Cyrus has been playing mind games with him shows that he is not as oblivious as he earlier looks. This is what creates the comedy—it is his utter desperation to somehow make things work with Molly, as much as Cyrus’s barely concealed hostility, expressed when he tells John, “Seriously, don’t fuck my mom,” a line that had the studio execs yukking it up during previews.
The stage is set for a battle of wills and wits (both John and Cyrus are brilliant improvisers) that indulges the Duplass brothers’ penchant for dissecting male competition and shows off their resourcefulness at creating funny moments based on Molly’s not seeing what is going on right before her eyes (in one scene, Cyrus holds up a handwritten sign to taunt John while John is sitting next to her). Of course, they act civilly to one another as long as she is in the room. And John, when talking to Molly alone, is careful to describe Cyrus’s stunts in as nice a way as he can, as “acting out.”
These scenes encourage Hill to go big in his acting, which the role of Cyrus really does require—after all, a grown son acting like a child (albeit one with a serious mother-fixation) is going to wreak chaos in most, if not all, households. Yet Reilly has no trouble keeping up with Hill, which is not surprising since Reilly acted alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman in True West, a play about two brothers at each other’s throats (Reilly and Hoffman alternated playing the roles of younger and older brother during its run). In the film, Reilly projects the towering intensity of a man who knows he has to fight harder than he has ever fought before for what he wants. When Cyrus suddenly announces he is going, with John and Molly, to the wedding of John’s ex-wife, John wastes little time in confronting him. That night, when Molly is asleep, John sneaks into his bedroom, wakes him up, and says, in a voice never rising above a whisper,
Listen, I know why you want to come to the wedding tomorrow. This wedding is really, really important to me. And my ex-wife’s feelings are really, really important to me. And I know we’ve been messing around with each other, and it would be a great time for you to mess things up for me and your mom. I agree. But here’s the thing. Do you know what it feels like to be knocked unconscious? Because if I sense for one second that anything weird is going on, or you’re even thinking of pulling some shit, I will knock you out. Do you understand?
But John’s intensity does not always appear heroic: in fact it can seem more defeatist, as when we see John hounding his ex-wife for advice about what to do about his relationship while she is trying to plan out her wedding (as her fiancé, with more than good reason, acts increasingly irritated). After Cyrus, refusing to back down, disrupts the wedding by starting a fight with John, John no longer has any inhibitions about telling Molly what he really thinks about Cyrus, even knowing, but not caring at this point, that it will end the relationship for good.
What happens next could either be chalked up to the power of love or the idea, woefully neglected by most Hollywood studio films, that victory at all costs can often be hollow. Cyrus has gotten what he wants, but now has to watch his mother spiral downwards. In a few brief images, Tomei does a masterful job of projecting hurt, compounded by exhaustion, as she sprawls across the couch. It is her line to Cyrus, “I’m not happy right now,” that makes him realize just how badly he has damaged his relationship with her.
Cyrus shows up at John’s apartment, begging for forgiveness, then arranges for John to drop by the house, knowing Molly will be there. The film ends moments before John and Molly reconcile. Yes, it is a happy ending, spliced with the male-(re)bonding between Cyrus and John.
But notice how the Duplass brothers arrange the conclusion to subtly reflect on John’s character. Throughout the film, he has been rather passive. At first he has to be dragged by his ex-wife to the party where he meets Molly. In the last scene, he looks out his car window to see Molly waiting on the porch and realizes that Cyrus has set him up—yet again. We get the feeling that John remains a work in progress. It requires a bold, almost foolhardy, level of larger-budget directorial courage to undercut even the slightest hint that John might have some degree of self-awareness. Once again, more true to life than we might care to admit, it is this feeling of surprise that mumblecore often goes to such great lengths to express.