Men With Mommy Issues
Jay and Mark Duplass rock the cradle of love in 'Cyrus'
John and Cyrus have one thing in common: They both love Molly. Scratch that. John and Cyrus have way more than one thing in common: They both, shall we say, are pleasingly plump, are no great shakes in the looks department, have no earth-shattering or even particularly impressive careers to speak of, are far from wealthy, and are generally just kind of pathetic. Which brings us back to Molly, the shared object of desire. John loves Molly because she's beautiful and vibrant and she, inexplicably, finds him attractive. "I'm Shrek!" he exclaims when they meet-cute at a party. "What are you doing out here in the forest with Shrek?" His lonely desperation is palpable, pitiable, which may be what attracts Molly to him in the first place. Cyrus, on the other hand, is Molly's son; she is his best friend, his playmate, and nothing – especially John – is going to come between them, not if he can help it. Such is the central conflict of Cyrus, the new film from brothers Mark and Jay Duplass.
"In his mind, someone is trying to take away the thing that is most important to him in life," explains Jonah Hill, who plays the titular territorial man-boy. "The fact that it's his mother may not be socially appropriate or healthy, but anyone can understand how frightening it would be to have the thing you [cherish] most taken away from you." And John (John C. Reilly) is so desperate to be loved that he is willing not only to stalk Molly (Marisa Tomei) but also to go head-to-head – in ways both hilarious and excruciating – with Cyrus in order to get the girl.
Mark Duplass explains the thought process behind this unusual predicament the characters find themselves in: "We've always made relationship movies. ... [W]e thought it would be nice to do a true love story, and a love triangle is always great. Once we started thinking that one of the legs of the love triangle would actually be the son of the woman, we started to get really excited about the tragic and the comic possibilities there."
Love triangles are indeed a common trope in film and literature, and they do often lead to hilarity or heartbreak (just ask anyone on Team Jacob). The late queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick posited that patriarchal society forces men to fulfill their homosocial needs and desires (that is, nonsexual bonds with other men) via rivalries in the form of love triangles. In those triangles, the woman is, effectively, a placeholder; it is what happens between the men that's the important stuff.
In order for John and Cyrus to feel like they fit in somewhere, they must first work out their respective insecurities via a sustained passive-aggressive war with each other. To allay his loneliness, John craves the fulfillment of a romantic relationship with Molly, while Cyrus fears what lies beyond the stronghold of the idyllic Highland Park, Los Angeles, home they share. Both men would be lost without her. But it is the struggle between them that defines them, not their respective relationships with Molly.
A love triangle that includes a mother and a son is a complicated setup, not to mention dangerously oedipal at first blush. Rather than imbue Molly and Cyrus' relationship with an icky sexual tension, the Duplasses have written a mother-child dyad that could serve as a cautionary tale against investing too deeply in Attachment Parenting (get a load of that photograph of Molly nursing a young Cyrus who appears to be a kindergartner!). "There's some terrible stuff in Molly and Cyrus' relationship; there's also some really beautiful stuff in it, too," hedges Mark, who is a parent. "We don't have any personal agenda or feelings about whether we say it's good or it's bad; we just think it's really interesting and fraught with beauty and peril and good fodder for making a movie, really."
"I don't think that Molly set the appropriate boundaries with Cyrus, and [she] gave him too much of a crutch to lean on," says Hill of his character's mother. "He felt too comfortable being wherever he was, when in reality at a certain point you have to be a parent instead of a best friend." John, the interloper, initiates an awakening between Molly and Cyrus that their relationship has gone out of bounds and that a correction is in order.
Such a story is a risky one, given that Cyrus is the Duplasses' first studio film. The brothers, New Orleans natives and graduates of the University of Texas who have maintained strong ties with the Austin film community, made a name for themselves on the indie and mumblecore circuits with their modest comedies The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008). As is to be expected, there was a learning curve involved for a duo with rather unorthodox methods.
"Communication is the key element that we learned in working with a studio," explains Mark, who also stars (with wife Katie Aselton, also a filmmaker) in The League, the FX network's raunchy sitcom about fantasy football. "Jay and I made all of our previous films working with our friends and our families, and we share a shorthand; it's understood what we're going for. So, early on in the process, we realized that we have to be very good at articulating our vision to not only the actors but the studio people and everyone to make sure that they were prepared to look at this footage in a different way. We had to get better at that."
The Duplass brothers create a completely different space for their films, so much so that the actors wind up doing most of the heavy lifting. "Most films are extremely controlled environments where they set up one shot, guy walks up to a red mark on the floor, turns to the right and says his line, they say 'Cut,' and they do the response, and it's chunked together," says Jay, who operated the cameras on Cyrus and employs a dramatically different method. "We light the whole room and we say, 'You are free to go where you want, say what you want; we know what the goal is at the end of the scene, we know what your character wants out of this other person or other two people, and it's your job to go and get it.' We bring the cameras to the actors as opposed to bringing the actor to the camera, which is a big difference."
The filmmakers gave the actors a script that is a rough guideline for where the story is meant to go, but most of the dialogue is improvised, which Jay argues has a remarkable effect on viewers. "I think the audience subconsciously picks up that nobody knows what's going to happen here, an incalculable sense that, wow, anything could happen here in this moment. That's what we feel is one of the big things we have to offer in our style."
This technique creates a tension that helps the audience to identify with the characters, especially anyone who has experienced that delicious anxiety-tinged anticipation that comes with meeting someone you really, really like and onto whom you project all your relationship hopes. Or the heartache expressed by the push-in zoom on a cell phone that simply will not ring. It also generates some beautifully intimate moments, when, like in a documentary, the camera captures not the straightforward image of the actors delivering their lines, but the emotions that flit across their faces as they listen to others speak. This lends the story an authenticity and immediacy of emotion that is so often lacking in contemporary film, and also made the work of acting a richer experience for its stars.
"The big challenge of this movie was showing up and being honest every day, really being in the moment and connecting with each other as characters," says Reilly, who inhabits the middle-aged sad sack with alarming verisimilitude. "I think, for a movie, it's pretty close to how it feels to be in a relationship with someone. As opposed to being spoon-fed some manipulated story to get a reaction out of you, it's much more of an immersive sort of thing. It's a really intimate movie – we see people's warts and their sweetness and the things that are not so sweet about them." His co-star agrees. "I would say it's a very human, relatable, honest, genuine story about people trying to fit in with each other," says Hill.
"It's emotionally honest, which turns out to be a revolutionary thing to do these days, since everything's so packaged and designed to please and to entertain," Reilly asserts.
"I dunno," Hill interjects wryly. "Did you see Avatar?"
Cyrus opens in Austin on Friday. See Film Listings for review.