Film Review: Cyrus

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Big Babies

(Cyrus, Jay and Mark Duplass, US, 2010, 91 mins)

I’m not certain whether I belong to Generation X or Y, allegedly there’s some overlap, but whichever cohort is registered when the barcode on my balls is scanned, there’s a question to be answered: why are we more infantile than our baby boomer parents? As I write this I’m 33 years old, incomprehensible I know, when I could effortlessly pass for 25.

I look around me and I see a whole tranche of youth, some my own age, some younger, with their language retarded by teenage idioms, many still shacked up with borderline pensionable parents and all exhibiting a vice like grip on the trappings of childhood. You’ll know a twenty something woman with a room stuffed with soft toys or an adult co-worker with an inexplicable penchant for Disney movies that talks like a character from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Some of these cockmunches are now having their own kids – children bringing up children.

Perhaps we can afford not to grow up, after all we’re better subsidised than our forebears, we’re cosseted for longer and we take on responsibility far later than our parents had to. You could argue that extending our incubation from life’s sharp end is a sort of generational revenge for the selfishness of the baby boomers. After all, the bastards bought up all the housing stock – dirt cheap if you don’t mind, enjoyed a free education, a privilege they’ve denied to their offspring and had their pick of the jobs. Yeah, that’s right, they did this to themselves. Oh, and of course let’s not forget that the liberated teenagers of the 1960s often became the absentee parents of the 80s and 90s. Honestly, this wouldn’t have happened in Grandpa’s day.

Cyrus will be required viewing for anthropologists of the future as it explores this infantilism question head on, holding a magnifying glass up to the broken baby boomers and their babies. Jay and Mark Duplass, adherents to the so called ‘Mumblecore’ filmmaking manifesto that favours a low budget, hand held and semi-improvised approach, have crafted a very fine comic-psychodrama that eschews prat falls and flippancy for a more intimately realist and considered rendering of manchild madness and its antecedents.

It sketches, in uncomfortable close up, the blight affecting a strain of the male population, though it’s hardly exclusive to the penis set; mothered men whose upbringing has been over engineered with the consequence that they’re emotionally and psychologically stunted.

John C. Reilly’s John is such a man. When we first meet him he’s caught masturbating and the embarrassed lady witness flees from the scene. This is your classic mother discovers son intimately involved in the circumstance of his sexual release scenario, except that Catherine Keener isn’t Reilly’s mother but his ex-wife. Although they’ve been separated for 7 years, he’s still dependent on her for emotional support and she begrudgingly plays the part, aware that he can’t survive without someone holding his hand. Despite being on the verge of re-marriage, she’s still trying to set him up with her replacement, encouraging him to go with her (and her new fiancé) to a party in the hope he’ll meet a woman. Incredibly he does, and that woman is Marisa Tomei’s Molly – kind but cagey and prone to disappearing post-coitus without explanation. Suspecting she may be married John follows her home and duly meets Cyrus, King of the household, filled out by Jonas Hill.

What follows is a frightening plausible battle for Molly’s affections in which the son who’s dominated both his Mother’s home and her life for the past two father-free decades, employs guerrilla tactics in order to see off the competition. He’s manipulative and malicious while outwardly gracious, a nicely observed comment on a generation of young adults well versed in the rhetoric of adulthood but inwardly insecure, terrified and not yet divested of the ruthless selfishness which we normally attribute to young children. John, meanwhile, at first in denial about Cyrus’s machinations and later unsure what to do, turns to his ex for support, while her new man tolerantly remains quiet in the background.

Other film-makers may have been tempted to overplay the parallel between John’s attempts to rid himself of Molly’s emotionally needy son and his own intrusion into his ex-wife’s healthy relationship but the Duplass’ keep it nicely understated. So too the excellent details, suggesting that the relationship between Molly and her son isn’t as well adjusted as it first appears. There’s the proudly mantled picture of her breast feeding an enormous baby, Cyrus’ over familiar referral to her by her Christian name and subtle hints that he controls the domestic scene, most notably in an early scene in which she’s compelled to keep her bedroom door open (effectively killing the prospect of intercourse), because “we always keep the doors open.”

The interplay by Reilly and Hill gives the conflict, er, weight with both quietly mining the situation for tension using a succession of long stares, backroom exchanges and passive aggressive chat. It’s this reliance on subtext that lends an impression of truth to proceedings. The filmmakers are content to trade belly laughs for psychological kick and consequently they’ve made a smart comedy with a genuine edge. Independent and industrious twenty and thirtysomethings that have reaped the benefit of a strong paterfamilias and settled spouse might enjoy this window into a different world. The rest should prepare to shuffle uncomfortably for the duration.

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