The writing-directing brother act of Jay and Mark Duplass were a breath of fresh air when they emerged from the micro-budget indie-film movement five years ago, largely because their semi-improvised slacker comedies The Puffy Chair and Baghead actually aimed to entertain, not just to document the quirks of inarticulate post-grads. Removed from their original contexts, though—in competition with the whole of cinema, not just a limited pool of regional festival fare—the Duplasses’ first two features don’t impress as much. Both start off promisingly, with strong characters, a good germ of a plot, and a few terrific scenes, but they peter out before the end.
The brothers’ third feature, Cyrus, charts much the same path, only with name actors in the leading roles, instead of the Duplass boys and their friends. Cyrus stars John C. Reilly as an irresponsible, depressed loser whose life starts to look up when he meets sweet, sexy Marisa Tomei. The problem is that Tomei lives with her son, Jonah Hill, who has no job, doesn’t go to school, and talks to people with earnest tones and an almost-imperceptible sarcastic smirk. So Reilly and Hill engage in a battle for Tomei’s heart, through a series of passive-aggressive moves and counter-moves that play a lot like a Hollywood version of this story, only with less snap—sort of like Step Brothers without the jokes.
There’s some terrific character-defining detail in Cyrus, as when Reilly tries to choose between a big or small box of condoms before his big date with Tomei. And there’s something to be said for the idea of a naturalistic comedy about what happens when people prop up their weak friends and relatives for far too long. (Tomei and Hill’s relationship mirrors the one between Reilly and his ex-wife Catherine Keener, which raises the question of whether Tomei only falls for Reilly because he’s just like her son.) But once again with the Duplasses, there just isn’t enough of anything: not enough funny lines, not enough variation of mood, not enough plot. If these guys were students, Cyrus might merit a “promising.” But this is their third movie. It’s time for them to stop turning in first drafts.