Monday, July 5, 2010
Let's make no mistake - The Puffy Chair, the Duplass brothers' 2005 breakout film of sorts was no grand achievement. It's got its mistakes to be sure. But at the time, I hadn't heard so much as a peep from truly independent cinema, which was being represented by Garden State and its ilk - films that were technically independent but had enough finanical and star firepower behind them that they were ready-made for studio distribution.
The Puffy Chair was certainly not that. I didn't know anything about mumblecore, and I didn't totally love the movie, but it did shake me in some fundamental ways that, whatever your critic hat might say, are impossible to disregard.
Now it's 2010 and the brothers Duplass have written and directed a new film produced by no less than Ridley and Tony Scott and featuring stars both studio comic (John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill) and quasi-independent (Catherine Keener and Marisa Tomei), enhancing none of their aesthetic shortcomings and abandoning everything that made The Puffy Chair feel fresh and vital. Here, Reilly plays a John, a man at the end of his rope - he hasn't come close to recovering from his divorce seven years ago when his ex-wife (Keener) invites him to a house party. There he meets Molly (Tomei), and everything is going great until he finds out that she has a son, Cyrus (Hill), who's still living at home at twenty-one and has certain...attachment issues. It quickly becomes clear that Cyrus doesn't want his mom dating anyone, and will do whatever it takes to get John out of the picture. It's a situation ripe for comedy or drama, and the Duplass' try to have it both ways and end up with nothing.
Cyrus, like The Puffy Chair and most other films that would come to be classified mumblecore, was shot digitally and handheld, and was mostly improvised, theoretically to enhance the "you-are-there"ness of it all, but it doesn't quite take here. The constant zooms call too much attention to the medium to ever put you in the midst of it, never mind the absurd, totally unmotivated montages.
The montages are undoubtedly the middle section's most troublesome aspect. Most of this area plays quite well - it's frequently funny, tense in some nice ways, and moderately compelling in a sort of "okay...well, let's see where this goes" sort of way. There are especially some nice moments revealing John's desperation in the dating field, and once he and Cyrus really start to go at it, every scene they have together is gold. But little things sneak in that are so far afield from the kind of film this is trying to be. The montages, in which conversations play out over images of the people in question hanging out, reveal the dark side of an improvised film - what happens when your actors don't have an interesting conversation? I'm just guessing here, but the montages feel very pieced together, taking bits of improvised dialogue and forming a scene like a puzzle made of ill-fitting pieces - it kind of works when you really jam it in there and stand back far enough, but the seams are showing. And when so much of the method is eager to make everything very natural-/realistic, these are very jarring.
I'll skip the bit about how Tomei and Keener don't have fleshed-out characters to play (except to say that Molly is either as damaged as Cyrus, or very, very dumb), because honestly, at this point it's not really worth making a big stink over anymore. It's just the lay of the land. Reilly and Hill are doing to best they can here (and between this and Get Him to the Greek, Hill seems more capable than we'd previously thought), but their characters each make very sudden, very poorly conceived decisions late in the film and are left scrambling to try and justify them. Everything after John's stupid decision is just a mess, and pretty much unravels any good will the film had garnered before.
I was really looking forward to Cyrus - I was excited to see John C. Reilly doing dramatic work again, and very curious about Jonah Hill, never mind getting a new film from the Duplass' that was perhaps a little bit more up their alley than Baghead (which, all its faults admitted, is still worth watching). Cyrus, alas, is the Duplass' first real stumble since they became a cinematic presence - a film unsure of its tone, characters, themes, or ideas.