Will mumblecore films ever move into the mainstream? Earlier this year, Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg featured big-name Ben Stiller alongside Greta Gerwig, the indie film trend’s anointed ingénue. And with Jay and Mark Duplass’ Cyrus, mumblecore’s most successful maestros find themselves not only with a mainstream comedy cast, but a plot formula that could have sprung directly from the Judd Apatow camp. Perhaps this a case of the chicken-and-egg in disguise: Apatow’s brand, which currently defines American studio comedy, has always been rooted in veiled autobiography (e.g. Funny People, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and the romantic exploits of the socially awkward (e.g. Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin), the same stuff of which mumblecore is made. Indeed, apart from budgets, the difference seemed to be the performances of professional comedy actors versus the subdued takes of mumblecore’s unknowns (often the filmmakers themselves), which has been significantly blurred lately.
The narrative of Cyrus is simple: it tells the story of lovelorn, divorced film editor John (John C. Reilly), who seems to strike gold when he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party. Rather than being turned off by John’s earnestness, Molly embraces it while also holding back a part of herself for a reason. That reason is Cyrus (Jonah Hill), her 22-year old, stay-at-home son. Despite the often too-comfortable attachment Molly and Cyrus display for one another, John is so infatuated that he continues his romantic pursuit. When John discovers that Cyrus secretly wishes to sabotage the budding relationship, dig-your-nails-into-your-skin hilarity ensues as the two begin to spar for her attention.
So does the mumblecore aesthetic disappear when filtered through an Apatow-esque lens? Yes and no. There are certainly hallmarks of the studio romantic comedy, like the montages depicting John and Molly falling for one another. Yet these scenes are scored with somber finger-plucked guitar music rather than the up-tempo Top 40 or nostalgic 80s New Wave one might come to expect (which actually would have worked here, considering Cyrus’ hobby of composing New Wave-inspired songs; had the Duplass brothers been really cheeky, they might have composed a soundtrack entirely of Cyrus’ music). The schmaltzy conversations are here too, but the filmmakers again give them a twist, voicing-over the dialogue while the characters interact with one another, overlapping non-sequentially. All this serves to infuse the movie with the quiet self-reflection expected of mumblecore films while tackling territory that has been mined significantly in the mainstream.
The real strength of the movie, however, lies not in the laugh-out-loud, R-rated Apatow highjinks, but in the awkward, discomforting humor that is rooted in a strong central truth: relationships, both family and romantic, make people very weird. The Duplass brothers invite the viewer to judge Molly and Cyrus just as John strives not to do, but should we take the bait, we must consider whether we are really any different with our own families (the faux shock value of this seems to lie at the heart of most reality shows). Molly and Cyrus may be dependent on one another, but the film also shows the dangers of being too self-reliant in John’s initial state of misery. As John endeavors to determine whether Molly and Cyrus are a socially-acceptable mother and son, he veers into stalker-like territory; moreover, he makes the terrible decision to recruit his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) as a cohort in this task. In the comfort of our own homes, or more importantly in the comfort of those we love, Cyrus reminds us how we are all a little bizarre.