SXSW 2010: Cyrus

As perhaps the most recognizable names behind the mumblecore movement, directors Mark and Jay Duplass have earned a small following over the years with festival favorites like “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead.” Their newest film is a minor departure from the genre that put them on the map, but even though it has the backing of a major studio and features an A-list cast, “Cyrus retains the low-budget, independent spirit of their other movies. Mostly unscripted but not quite mumblecore, “Cyrus” may drive some longtime fans away, but this darkly comical look at the human condition is guaranteed to earn the Duplass brothers an entirely new audience.

John C. Reilly stars as John, a freelance editor who’s still getting over the divorce from his first wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), even though it’s been seven years since they separated. Jamie is now engaged to her new boyfriend (Matt Walsh), but she’s remained friends with John over the years and invites him to a party one night in order to meet someone new. John begrudgingly agrees, and though the night doesn’t get off to a great start, he’s eventually approached by Molly (Marisa Tomei), a beautiful single who’s totally out of his league. Nevertheless, the two hit it off immediately and start a romance, but when John worries that Molly is hiding something from him, he follows her back home to find that there’s another man in her life – her 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Though Cyrus appears friendly enough at first, John soon realizes that the overly-attached mama’s body will do whatever it takes to break them up and keep Molly all to himself.

cyrus

It’s a relationship that could have easily come across as creepy if the material didn’t have such a genuine quality to it. Granted, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still hard to swallow at times, but the cast does a pretty good job of not focusing too much on the somewhat taboo nature of their bond by keeping the story flowing – particularly since all the dialogue is improvised. Marisa Tomei is easily the best actor of the bunch, but she’s a little out of her element here, relying mostly on her co-stars to guide her through each scene. John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, on the other hand, have a real knack for comic improvisation, and it shows in their ability to constantly up the ante. Reilly is solid in his best role in years, delivering a performance that’s both funny and sweet, but it’s Hill’s semi-serious turn as the title character that will likely steal most of the limelight. It’s hardly worth all the fuss (he’s good, but not that good), but it’s still an interesting career move for an actor best known for comedies like “Superbad” and “Knocked Up.”

Even with its marquee talent, “Cyrus” is still very much a Duplass brothers film. Though it’s difficult to gauge how much they actually contributed to the story apart from writing the outline, their fingerprints are all over the final product – particularly the way in which it was shot, as if some of the more intimate moments are being recorded by a third party for some kind of bizarre documentary on Oedipus complex. These dramatic scenes are handled nicely by all involved, but without its dark, comedic undercurrent, “Cyrus” wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable. And if the Duplass brothers can figure out a way to strike this perfect balance between drama and comedy (and to a lesser note, indie and mainstream) in every one of their films, their futures are going to be bright.

  

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A chat with Mark Duplass of “Humpday”

Mark DuplassMark Duplass, along with Joshua Leonard (“The Blair Witch Project”), is one of the two stars of one of the funniest and just plain nicest movies I’ve seen in awhile. If you haven’t yet read my review, writer-director Lynn Shelton’s Indie Spirit award-nominated “Humpday” is a really funny comedy about two completely heterosexual best friends who become possessed by the idea of making an art-porno in which the two of them take their bromance to its highly illogical extreme.

Duplass may be best known as one half of the film-making Duplass Brothers, who had a big indie/festival hit with “The Puffy Chair,” one of the most acclaimed films in the so-called “mumblecore” movement — improvised, usually comic, films in which no one actually mumbles much but in which the dialogue is largely improvised. While the “mumblecore” tag has become more than a little dated, the Brothers D are currently completing their first movie with big-name stars (specifically, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and John C. Reilly), which was without a title when this interview was conducted but we’ve just learned via Anne Thompson is going to be named “Cyrus.”

“Humpday” technically could be considered mumblecore because, while it was for the most part tightly plotted, the dialogue was improvised. It’s a technique Duplass was clearly comfortable with as he has acted in the films he has been making with his brother, Jay Duplass, for over a decade, as well as in such other ‘core hits as “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” We caught up with Mark via phone a bit early in the day (my time), one recent Friday morning…

PH: Just before I saw “Humpday,” I reviewed the DVD of “The Odd Couple.” I was just thinking, now that you’ve had time to think about the movie and everything, and we have this recently coined word “bromance,” which this movie obviously deals with – how do you think “Humpday” fits in with all these other movies that have been out there?

Read the rest of this entry »

  

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The boy-men of LAFF, Part 2: “Humpday.”

As stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard admitted during the post-screening LAFF Q&A on Friday night, Lynn Shelton’s improvisational comedy “Humpday” was “reverse engineered” from a premise that a lot of straight guys, at least, will no doubt have a hard time swallowing. However, if you take the film as it goes, it develops its premise believably.

The film opens from the point of view of Duplass’s Ben, a happily married guy trying for his first baby with wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). At 1:30 one morning he is greeted with a surprise visitor, Andrew, an impetuous artsy type who has been traveling the world and having various sorts of bohemian adventures. The film sets up two simple ideas that, in a more normal world, should not come into conflict: Ben and Anna love each other quite a bit as husband and wife; Ben and Andrew love each other quite a bit as best friends.

The problem is that Ben may not be quite as thoroughly comfortable in committing to a lifelong domestic role as he might first appear. The following night, a party with Andrew’s cute new hook-up, her lesbian girlfriend, and various bohemian friends of various sexual preferences leads to a discussion of Seattle’s real-life amateur art-porn video contest, Hump Fest. In turn, that leads Ben, attending without Anna, to an inspiration. With pretty much everything under the sexual sun already committed to video, the only thing left with which you can make any kind of statement or push any envelope would be the spectacle of two straight guys somehow managing to have sex with each other.

Instead of dying the death you’d expected an idea like that to die once the booze and the pot wears off, it takes on a life of its own as Ben pushes Anna to the margins and winds up in the most humorously counterintuitive macho pissing contest ever committed to film. During a rough basketball game, he and Andrew nearly come to blows, and the issue somehow turns out to be who has the artistic/creative gumption to actually commit to the “project.” It’s an inherently funny premise for exploring the old issue of competition between close male friends, explored to more dramatic effect in “Jules and Jim,” Joachim van Trier’s “Reprise,” and probably a bunch of other movies I can’t remember right now. It’s also more poignant than you might think, because, for all his artistic aspirations, Andrew hasn’t actually completed any projects yet.

For an improvised film, this is a nicely-acted, witty, and thoughtful piece of work with plenty of laughs, even if Ben’s beyond-shabby treatment of the very tolerant Anna stretches believability for a guy who’d perhaps like to stay married.  The only real problem with “Humpday” is that this is a story with no satisfactory resolution. If the guys go ahead and do the deed, then we’ll likely always question whether they were both really all that completely hetero to begin with, and we’re left with no premise. If they don’t do the deed, it’s a bit of a cheat.

I won’t give it away, but it’s telling that, in a film where the plot points were laid out in advance but the dialogue was generally improvised with actors Leonard and Duplass (one half of the improv-comedy filmmaking Duplass brothers) effectively acting as writing collaborators, the decision was made to improvise the resolution as well. Naturally, the result was a let down. Like the rest of the film, however, it is funny and feels fairly real in its disappointment, which might actually be the point.

[Note: If you happen to be reading this on Monday afternoon, 6/22, at about 2:30 p.m., PDT, you have just over two hours to get to Westwood to see the second and final LAFF screeening of “Humpday.” Hurry.]

  

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