Step Brothers By Way of John Cassavetes

06/16/2010 4:00 AM |

Directed by Mark and Jay Duplass

So many contemporary comedies are undone by a case of The Plots—you know, when the laughs grind to a halt so the filmmakers can wrap up a story that nobody cares about? Mumblecore alums Mark and Jay Duplass (Puffy Chair, Baghead) tackle the problem in their latest, Cyrus, not by chucking the story but by trying to dissolve the jokes into it. Produced by Tony and Ridley Scott, the movie feels like a Will Ferrell vehicle shot with a handheld, like Step Brothers by way of John Cassavetes. The actors turn caricatures into complex characters; broad situations are filmed tightly (even if they’re still conspicuously contrived), squeezing the usual comic-absurdities into a “quirky realism” context.

John C. Reilly stars as, uh, John, a divorced, porcine schlub—”I’m like Shrek”—who can’t even pick up The Fat Chick at a party. He’s introduced to us while masturbating. So it’s a bit of a miracle (or, phony movie-fantasy) that when he meets-cute the girl of his dreams (Marisa Tomei), she reciprocates his affections. (He’s peeing in public when they meet, which she finds charming.) The catch is that she has a son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), with whom she shares a weird relationship: among other things, they use the bathroom together, like an old married couple sans the sexual history. A 21-year-old who acts like a 12-year-old acting like a 21-year-old, the title character wants his mother all to himself, butting heads with John; they’re two crazy manboys competing for the same woman’s attention.

You can imagine the brash confrontations they must have! But, actually, here, threats of violence come in agitated whispers. (Breaking type, Hill channels more Cera than Rogen to play the deadpanning asshole.) By not bothering with blocking, lighting or a strict shooting script, the Duplasses encourage the humor to emerge organically from the narrative and characters; they avoid the Hollywood comedy’s clunky plotting by making the jokes a part of the story. The result is still predictable, but not easy: complex feelings—for a comedy, anyway—are not only addressed but worked through; instead of sputtering towards an eye-rolling, yawn-provoking finale, Cyrus kind of makes you feel something.

Well, almost, anyway. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, and the Duplasses wobble; absurdity through a lens serious still often seems absurd. That said, they come much closer than any other director(s) in the last decade to achieving an increasingly elusive end: yeah, there are plenty of comic dramas, but since Woody Allen got old, when’s the last time anybody pulled off a truly dramatic comedy? At least, somebody working with Scott Brothers kind of money?

Opens June 18