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Cyrus (2010) -vs- City Island (2009)

Cyrus -vs- City Island

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

Summertime and the movie theaters fill with audiences seeking relief from all that heat and sun. Who needs 3D, tired franchises, vampires and werewolves, chases, aliens, explosions, and CGI? Not me. Gimme an indie film with a half-decent script, a well-chosen cast, a fresh point of view, recognizable human behavior and I’m there. I’ll always opt to bypass the long lines and head for the arthouse to spend a couple of hours watching a dysfunctional family as long as it’s not my own.

Love and attachments, lies and secrets, relationships, relationships, relationships. That’s what makes this fickle filmgoer swoon. With that in mind, two extremely quirky cinematic families battle it out for my affections. Cyrus takes on City Island.

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In This Corner

Cyrus features the usually charming Everyman John C. Reilly as John. This bowl of lumpy oatmeal on legs somehow wins the heart of Molly (Marisa Tomei), fizzy yet guarded, an angel of sex full of unanswered questions. Their unlikely romance provides the grain of sand, the irritant, that exposes the depth and breadth of her overly-attached son Cyrus’ (Jonah Hill) instability and oddness. The film teeters uncomfortably on a rickety ledge of quirky family black comedy. You know the one. It’s another Lars and The Real Girl cringefest where eccentricity is the norm, and we feel like washing our hands (and brains) after. This discomfort passes, I suppose, for indie cred, and if we don’t salute the filmmakers’ foray into uncharted “brave” unconventionality, we’ve missed the point or the joke or whatever.

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In That Corner

Raymond De Felitta’s City Island might just be our domestic and slightly sanitized-for-your-safety version of Mike Leigh’s much-lauded Secrets and Lies. Featuring a far more photogenic cast of players and cartoonier stakes, a family comes together and falls apart when a tangled web of deceits unsnarl. Andy Garcia plays Vince Rizzo, a prison guard with a dream and a whole lotta secrets. The entire Rizzo family plays it close to the vest; honesty and openness comes hard to these folks. The arrival of a hirsute and hunky visitor (Steven Strait) starts unraveling the fabric of lies they’ve all woven, and by the movie’s end, the truth is out there.

The Scorecard

Cyrus isn’t quite funny enough to function as comedy nor insightful enough to work dramatically. It falls somewhere in that weird indie middle ground I like to avoid. Jonah Hill, once again, plays a lead he might not have the acting chops to fully inhabit. His Cyrus is something of a creepy cipher, a collection of blank stares and tics and offbeat behaviors that don’t add up to much. We’re left to speculate for ourselves and treated to over-simplified explanations in a rare case of Too Much Too Late.

Unsettlingly, Tomei plays it cagey and cute, a very slight variation on a rom-com hottie, blithely assuming no responsibility for the weirdly over-sexualized and unnatural family dynamic she’s created with her adult son. The full-on weirdness doesn’t land fully for her pursuer either; apparently, his Los Angeles has only one available single woman. Their chance meeting cements them as a couple that can’t be torn asunder; even once the secrets are out, inexplicably, he comes back for more. Reilly’s garden variety neurotic has issues with attachment as well; he still works with and confides in his ex-wife, the ubiquitous Catherine Keener, this time playing the “normal” one. (Do they even make indie films without her participation? Is she a franchise? A clone? How can she work so much and avoid huge fame so cagily?) Her fiance (Matt Walsh) stands by mostly mute – perhaps his good scenes are somewhere on the cutting room floor or more likely, she’s traded one doormat for another, newer model.

Andy Garcia as Vince Rizzo has never been better or more charming; the few middle-aged pounds he’s carrying ground him and render him sweeter and more winning. His almond eyes have lost their violent edge; he’s vulnerable and clearly having the time of his life playing a p-whipped alpha dog on the slide. Alan Arkin makes the very best of his pivotal extended cameo, a very neat trick he manages with astonishing frequency. Slightly miscast Julianna Margulies gets little to do and doesn’t do it entirely convincingly; she’s far better when set free to flaunt her icy bitch best, but she’s game and you have to admire her taking the risk.

Playing their “college student” daughter, Andy Garcia’s real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido is just fine, but as their chubby-chasing son, Vince Jr., the adorably dry Ezra Miller just about walks off with the film. He’s a revelation — underplayed, subtle, and whip-smart. You’ll be seeing a lot more of him on the silver screen. Count on it. Emily Mortimer rounds out the very strong ensemble and provides a nice foil for the dysfunctional family at the center of the proceedings.

The Decision

Cyrus left me disturbed with little to ponder. It didn’t make me laugh either. It’s not the first time the Duplass brothers (Mark and Jay) have confused me with their bizarre and shifting tone. Perhaps I’m just not indie enough to appreciate its wonders.

While City Island accents grate a bit and even migrate to New England occasionally, this little film packs considerable charm. It doesn’t totally work – some set pieces are clunky and overdone; you can feel the clock running on the climactic night shoot as the awkward blocking makes less and less sense. But it has a huge heart, fresh laughs, and a few real surprises in store. A winner. No secrets… I preferred City Island. No lie.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

2 Comments on Cyrus (2010) -vs- City Island (2009)

  1. They are both about family disfunction, but Cyrus played it closer to the bone, made things more uncomfortable. Topic dependency single mothers and sons. Exaggerated but the presence of a man child in a single mother’s relationship was well done. The disfunction in City Island was more spread out, didn’t cut as close–got the concept of how secrets close everybody up. What about that young boy and the fat chicks. They should have let her cook for that final picnic scene where all the secrets were out in the sunshine. Iloved this movie cause I’m from the Bronx. I think it is interesting to compare them, but they were both different and both good. JANE

  2. Saw both films and couldn’t agree with you more

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