Sunday, July 11, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies

Yesterday the rain washed the air clean and we breathed it in and walked to Harvard Square to see Cyrus.

My expectations were unusually specific going into this film. I knew about the premise, the grown son protecting his mom from the new suitor- and I had seen two other movies that the Duplass brothers had participated in, each of which unfolded in some way that I didn't anticipate. But Cyrus never did. I don't want to say that it was predictable- that wouldn't be fair, because the characters really were multidimensional and there were small surprises along the way. But, the basic outline, the Cliff Notes version of this, you could come close to writing before even seeing it.

Basically, I think the plotting gets in the way. This movie is totally alive in its first act, when it takes more of an interest in the funny pedestrian details of its performances. The attraction between the leads feels completely genuine (a rare accomplishment, come to think of it), perhaps in part because, while the characters are required by the plot to fall in love, the plot has not yet truly arrived.

The plot, of course, is Cyrus- he is the Tartuffe, the incarnate difficulty, the very premise of the film- and once he arrives, there is an opportunity for the modest universe of the film to become yet richer, but the needs of the plot soon take over. I felt a little stranded- I kind of wanted to go back to the party in the first act and see what other interesting people I could find there.

The strangest moments in the film are when the conflict between the two men of the house turns to angry verbal confrontations, all of which are played for laughs. These scenes attempt an uncomfortable balancing act- both characters must maintain their reality, yet to serve the film's concept and in the name of comedy, must also be reduced to cartoons. I was a bit stunned that the sweet John (John C. Reilly) was so hateful, and I ended up not really believing it. Then late in the film there is an excellent scene in which John lets Cyrus really have it. At that moment, at least, the anger came into focus for me. I finally believed it when the actor just belted it out like he really meant it.

Cyrus can at least claim better acting than The Puffy Chair (an earlier Duplass brothers film), and better characters with more potential. I would definitely watch a sequel about the further adventures of these people. Yet I prefer The Puffy Chair, and I also prefer Humpday, a film starring Mark Duplass that I have assumed for some time was also made by the Duplasses, but is not. (I haven't yet seen Baghead). These films each build to something, the kind of ending that movies should have- the catharsis that you don't completely anticipate. Humpday's climactic sequence in a motel room was worth the entire partially-baked first and second acts- it had more thought-provoking dialogue than many films manage in their entirety, yet at once it felt alive and energetic, like sketch comedy. And The Puffy Chair, as much as the characters have gotten on the nerves of nearly everyone I've seen the film with, contains scenes of lover's quarrels that make so much sense to me, I still replay them in my head. Somehow, Cyrus seemed less ambitious. But I enjoyed it, and it was still miles better than most romantic comedies. Bottom line, what I respect most about the Duplass brothers is that they want to tell love stories that hinge on people resolving their differences after falling in love, not about people who gradually discover over the course of two hours that they have a mutual attraction.

(Correction: A previous version of this post referred to the film Humpday as a Duplass brothers film. Incredibly, it is not. It was written and directed by Lynn Shelton, who must be related to them or something.)

(p.s. Don't you love saying that expression, "hump day?" You don't? Okay, I'll stop.)

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