Mumblecore for beginners
John C. Reilly talks about diving into the Duplasses’ funny, intimate, excellent Cyrus
Not to overstate or jump the gun here, but in terms of popularizing a movement, mumblecore may have found its 1913 Armory Show. Its Jackie Robinson. Its Enchirito.
For the uninitiated: The mumblecore (or, as it’s less widely/perhaps more amusingly known, “Slackavetes”) “movement” is a sort of shared cinematic M.O. (or, if you like, “modus cinemandi”): small, personal, teensy-budget stories, told with often-extemporaneous dialogue and a focus on relationships and emotional truth.
“For us, like, we don’t care about anything else in our movie — set design, camera work, production design — we just really need great, sensitive actors who trust us and wanna be with us,” Mark Duplass, one half of seminal mumblecore filmmaking duo the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair, Baghead), said in these pages in 2008. “So, for us, it’s probably gonna take us a little while to get together a studio movie, ’cause the cast is just, it’s everything.”
Smash-cut to the present, and Cyrus. The Duplasses’ third feature — a touching, very, very funny and (often excruciatingly) close-up tour of a wounded divorcé’s complicated relationship with a captivating new lover and her live-in son — marks the brothers’ first film to be studio-produced, their first to payroll so-called “name” actors (let alone multiple [and multiple-] Oscar nominees), and, with any luck, the last time I’ll have to preface a piece with an explanation of the m-word.
The film, which stars John C. Reilly as the aforementioned protagonist, the luminous Marisa Tomei as his new flame, and Jonah Hill as the titular son and boarder (and includes excellent turns by Catherine Keener and Matt Walsh; not a bad haul for your first picture with “movie stars”), draws a significant share of its tension and momentum — and much of its comedy, as well — from the mounting awkwardness and eventual antagonism between hopeful suitor John and Cyrus, a college-aged codependent who swiftly interprets the former’s presence as a threat to the insular bond he shares with his mother. Reilly and Hill navigate these interchanges adroitly, nimbly skirting the sometimes deceptively thin line dividing authentic human behavior from farce — despite the fact (or due to it?) that, in many cases, according to Reilly, they were making it up as they went.
“It was a fully-written script. I mean, I think the studio was pretty insistent on having [chuckles] an actual script,” Reilly says, on the phone from L.A. “But ... [Mark and Jay] were like, ‘Don’t worry about the dialogue.’ Y’know, ‘Here’s how the story kind of plays out’ ... but they were even open to having the plot changed … like, ‘If somethin’ else happens, if somethin’ doesn’t seem right, then [let’s] do something different, and we’re shooting in order, so we’ll just incorporate whatever you’re doing.’”
For some actors, that much freedom might be unnerving. Even Reilly, veteran of such ad-lib-friendly titles as Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, notes a difference.
“When we do comedy stuff, improvisation’s more like, y’know, you come up with a really funny script, and then you film that two or three times, and then as soon as you sort of lose the element of surprise, you start changing stuff out to keep each other laughing,” he says. “You’re more like, uh, improvising within a … more limited framework?”
With Cyrus, the framework was hardly there at all.
“Anytime I would ask ’em for some kind of goalposts or guidelines along the way, they were like. ‘We’d rather not say, we’d rather watch you figure it out on camera.’ ... We didn’t even rehearse. ... They would just kind of turn the cameras on, and we’d start going, a lot of times ... hearing what the other [actor] was gonna say for the first time while the cameras were rolling. … You can see the surprise on our faces is genuine.”
Asked to compare his experience with the Duplasses to his work with, for example, P.T. Anderson, Reilly says:
“Well, most great directors are all about looking for the moment when the truth reveals itself on camera, you know? Whether that’s with written dialogue or with improvisation … you’re looking for that accident, y’know, that happy accident that happens on film when the actor surprises himself and everyone else. … Mark and Jay, they’re part of this new generation of independent filmmakers that are really tired of artifice and sort of fake movie storytelling. ... [chuckles] The way that they found the truth for themselves as artists was by telling stories that seemed familiar to their lives.”
Indeed, the perceptive and perchance surprisingly subtle Cyrus, at heart, rings quietly, unassumingly true. Enough folks take notice, and the “movement” may have to turn in its quotation marks. •