Cyrus

Two of the biggest craniums in cinema are at loggerheads in Cyrus. They belong to John (John C. Reilly), a ringer for Shrek, and the eponymous man-child played by Jonah Hill, whose submerged neck forms a halo—like the frame around a medieval portrait of a saint. But, like the painted saints of way-back-when, there’s something eerie, ivory, impassive in his features: his iceberg eyes and mouth agape. He bears a passing resemblance to his beloved ma, Molly (Marisa Tomei). She has the sort of long-lashed brown twinklers that could either be kind or too kind; they camouflage her thoughts. Despite being out of his league, she hits it off with John—who’s seven years on the rebound—after she catches him releasing into the bushes his intake from a hitherto luckless mixer. He’s shit-faced enough to stop fretting over his lackluster social skills; he cranks up the stereo when an old favorite pops on, and Molly is the first to sing along. Unfortunately, this scratches the needle on her 21-year duet with the almost-22-year-old Cyrus, who’s just a few retinal stabs away from being the Oedipus to her Jocasta.

But this movie’s aim is not to be a bom-chick-a-wow-wow Greek tragedy; and it wouldn’t be quite fair to compare it to other mother-lovin’ comedies, like Murmur of the Heart or Spanking the Monkey, in which genealogy is actually defied, and the kinfolk really do get kinky. Rather, it’s spawn of a more standard form—an inversion of Meet the Parents—though, in technique, it’s very different. The writing credit allotted to the directors—the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass—may be largely symbolic; according to Reilly, “90% of the movie is first or second takes.” It’s as if they were importing the concept of sustainability to film; but the honesty that’s composted doesn’t quite jibe with the comedic potentialities heaped on the trash pile. They seem indisposed to break past slaphappy gentility, so Cyrus coasts on its delicate charm, like a bodyboarder riding the mellow whims of a glassy morning tide. Clearly, the Duplasses—masters of mumblecore—didn’t want to grease up their style, and harsh their (critical) buzz. This is their first sort-of-marquee-name cast, and their first sort-of-big-studio (Fox Searchlight) production. Despite the salable simplicity of their plot, it was good of them not to crumble to commercial tastes.

The mainstream comic movies today have alarmingly effective defense mechanisms. The specter of big-daddy postmodernism is certainly to blame; something like The Hangover is insulated by our society’s dwindling gamut of sexual taboos (even the culture warriors have cozied up with this sort of safe sex, emasculating the satirists’ sting), the fungibility of the fungal jokes, and the pop-cultural echolalia, the references that feed off one another. Ergo—to my tastes, at least—the less affected the bonehead comedy, the more purely enjoyable. Ambitions can be crippling when the audience wants an easy laugh. Turning their laughter against them when they seek the safe-bet mindlessness that a certain class of comedy is a shoe-in for can come off as a betrayal. I don’t mean to sound condescending; smarty self-consciousness in this type of movie can slaughter laughter, and lead to a posture of condescension that may not have been intended. Witness Hot Tub Time Machine from this year, or Observe and Report from last; neither were hits. Despite my reservations about them, I did sense creative intelligences at work—if sometimes slacking off. They were trying to latch onto the frat-pack school of comedy, headquartered in decaying Guyland—or, if you’ll permit me, Brahpolis. Unfortunately, they also wanted us to know how distasteful Brahpolis is—and even if they’re right in finding the milieu rather slimy, there’s no better way to snag a laugh in ice-cold intellect, restricting its access to the mouth, than by sucking up to something while cussing it under your breath. (An Apatow production like Pineapple Express isn’t really an exception. The actors flirted with satire, but the filmmakers couldn’t sustain the winkiness, and welded both eyes shut. It became a shoot-’em-up, and bungled another genre.) So, as ironic-funny as Rob Corddry was in H.T.T.M.—he has a better outlet on the show Childrens Hospital, now on Adult Swim—his lines became grating. The filmmakers just didn’t get that Will Ferrell himself is a parody of fatuity. (The trouble is that he’s been impersonating George W. Bush for too long; playing him as a harmless, good-natured dolt just doesn’t quite cut it for me anymore.) By attempting to parody a style too self-conscious (and too self-consciously lowbrow) to lampoon, the filmmakers ended up degrading themselves.

You can’t satirize Brahpolis within its city limits, but you can within your own niche, or in the freeing light of realism. Though Lynn Shelton’s Humpday did not critique Guyland, or at least not its typical habitués—the shameless self-caricatures who populate Jersey Shore—it did touch on the bromantic gray areas that remain taboo to bozos and bohemians alike. It was like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice for a time of post-sexual-revolutionary capitulation, or a weak-tea Americanization of Alphonso Cuarón’s brilliant, electrostatic Y Tu Mamá También. Weak tea, but sweet tea. Shelton directed the 2009 problem comedy—about a pair of straight college buds who decide to star in a gay porno together—in mumblecore fashion, and there were briar patches of revelation and fascination in the off-the-cuff interplay; but it too was marred by hyperconsciousness. With an introspective filmmaker like Mark Duplass cast as one of the leads, the film awkwardly went about doing the audience’s interpretive work for us, and I felt that bogged the picture down. But how can it be avoided anymore? That sort of hippie-lineage let’s-talk-it-out bullshit is imprinted on this chastened generation. I hate to castigate honesty.

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Inception

When Leonardo DiCaprio washed ashore at the beginning of Inception, I thought that Jack had survived the sinking of the Titanic. But if he had, it would only be to drown in the subconscious depths that this movie layers on. Don’t get me wrong: This new film, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is artful and enjoyable—thought-out, if rarely thought-provoking. I liked it; and it’s nice to go into a summer movie without being impaled by sequels and Happy Meal prototypes. But if Inception is a mind fuck, it’s sex with a virgin brain.

Although this is the latest model in the dude-this-blows-my-mind-pass-me-the-joint mold, and it’s meant to whirl like a dervish in the viewers’ brains, enticing ’em to scamper back to the theater to reverse engineer its backed-up cranial plumbing, I didn’t find it too hard to follow—and that’s a compliment. Nolan fluidly hopscotches from one nightmare to the next, dragging his mottled dream team in tow. DiCaprio heads up this rather esoteric bunch. For high-income clients, he and his gangly assistant, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will climb over the mental membranes of unsuspecting schmucks, and purloin secrets from their subconscious. Is this legal? Is this common? Does John Q. Public know that his dreams are no longer private? You might need to rock Nolan’s dream boat to get any concrete answers. Perhaps the closest we get to a clue comes when Cobb (DiCaprio) recruits Ellen Page to be an “architect” of mental states after her predecessor is vanished—presumably tortured to death by a Japanese bigwig named Saito (Ken Watanabe). (Her job is to design the topography of the dreams that Cobb dips into, and I’m sure someone will draw a soggy parallel between it and to film direction.) Under Michael Caine’s tutelage—he makes hardly a cameo, unfortch—she seems to have learned the basics of Cobb’s trade; but she’s about as aware of the specifics as the Ivy Leaguers were of the C.I.A. when they were harvested to staff its first generation.

Saito’s brain is the first we see hacked; but whatever they retrieved from it must not have been too vital to his conglomerate—he becomes Cobb’s next client. The plan now is not the usual retrieval, but “inception”: planting an idea in subconscious soil. Apparently, though, this is risky business; ideas metastasize like cancers, and eventually wrack the whole brain—for all intents and purposes, warping the victim’s personality. Their mark is a preppy named Fischer (Cillian Murphy, posed in stock photos like a Ralph Lauren model); he’s the inheritor of his cold-fish father’s business empire, and rival industrialist Saito wants to see that kingdom as divided as Lear’s. (Cobb & Co. are like trust-busting privateers, even if Nolan doesn’t frame them that way.) Over the course of an international flight, they break into the yuppie’s soul, and face off not only with an army of superegotistical white blood cells, but also Cobb’s own demon—his late enchantress of a wife is down there waiting for him.

It’s also down there that Nolan gets to show off his kickass blockbusting skills. He ups the ante, widening the ambit of slumberland to dreams within dreams—and that only accounts for the goings-on in Fischer’s noggin. Cobb caroms through the synapses on his own guilt trip, with Page accompanying him, acting as an in-house analyst. In the world above, we’ve already bounced between continents. (It’s an open secret of good summertime moviemaking that one should dazzle the audience with exotic locales, titillating their inner tourist—particularly at a time when real tourism budgets are strapped.) The world below isn’t quite what it could be, though. We get a rainy day in New York (?), a five-star hotel, and what looks to be the ninja bivouac from Batman Begins situated on the ice planet Hoth. There’s also the decomposing remains of a comatose limbo that Cobb once cohabited with his wife (Marion Cotillard)—don’t ask me who their real-estate agent was—which is finely imagined, if curiously. Of why they’d choose to build a Mies van der Rohe nightmare for themselves, with a skyline of identical obelisks, I have no idea. I heard some guy bitching about Inception on one of the entertainment-industry channels, and he compared it to Mulholland Drive. In truth, Nolan’s dreamworlds have nothing on David Lynch’s intuitive dreamscapes, or the feeling one gets even from Lynch’s lesser movies; but this is a thriller first and foremost, and, considering that, some of his visuals—M. C. Escher stairwells, Gordon-Levitt curb-stomping through zero-G hallways, and cities folding on themselves like board games going back into the box—are very impressive.

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Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 deserves the praise it’s been given; and, to my surprise, the 15-year lag between this film and its progenitor actually serves to enhance its poignancy. When, in this installment, the playthings are exiled to a daycare center, it seems more like an old-folks’ home. Their owner, Andy, is off to college; his childhood relics are being retired. Of course, the minds at Pixar are ever-resilient—they stick with a more commercially accessible rubric: prison. They stuff the ol’-boy warden from Cool Hand Luke, and he’s reincarnated as a l’il girl’s teddy bear.

But Pixar pastiches are too richly imaginative to feel like hand-me-downs; they don’t make allusions, they draw together familiar threads and stitch them into a unified whole. What separates Toy Story from The Velveteen Rabbit or Where the Wild Things Are or A. A. Milne’s stories about Winnie-the-Pooh—though not The Brave Little Toaster, a childhood favorite of mine borrowed from liberally here—is its inclusion of consumer culture. In earlier eras, sentient dolls weren’t threatened with the garbage pail; they had the insurance policy of being passed on to the next generation. At a time when there’s a new hot item every Christmas, these figurines have to stay in shape if they want to stay in the crate; the conflict between cowpoke and spaceman in the first Toy Story was not instigated insignificantly. Though the toys’ acceptance of their new phase of “life” is cheerful in part three—and, for a blockbusting cartoon, courageous—there are strands of feeling that seem almost heartbreakingly mature. When, as they inch perilously closer to the hellish maw of a fire-breathing incinerator, the toys link hands and form a chain, it’s an eerily moving moment—the acceptance of moving on in Up has advanced to an acceptance of moving beyond. No plastic circle has ever left our mortal coil so gracefully unfurled.

The Square

In keeping with a tradition otherwise upheld only by Pixar, The Square is preceded by a nine-minute short called Spider—a hilarious macabre hoodwink, clean as clockwork, with nastily prankish timing. This appetizer got my mouth watering; it should have set the tone for the feature to come, which was produced by the same team of Aussie amateurs. Let’s just say that the entrée’s title might well be autobiographical.

Structurally, The Square has a fine film noir skeleton, but no meat on top of it. It has a paucity of wisecracks, a perfunctory romance, and a complete deficiency of glamour. In other words, a set-up, a moral, and one bad deed after another—which is adequate, if not my idea of a good time. This is the first feature that former stuntman Nash Edgerton (you might remember his body, if not his face, from The Matrix Revolutions and episodes II and III of Star Wars) directed; it was written by his brother Joel (an actor who plays an arsonist here) and Matthew Dabner. But there’s little derring-do for stunts to shine through, and no interesting characters for performers to embody. They’ve brought nothing new to the genre, but retained its clichés: How did this pair of marital cheats end up with their original spouses (a marginalized housewife, bland as bean paste, and a Blue Collar Comedy Tour roadie with no discernible career aside from unspecified malefic schemes)? Edgerton’s plotting is studious and style deterged; but there’s no passion or pleasure—as in Broken Embraces and Shutter Island—just precision.

In a way, Edgerton’s myopic dedication to this threadbare plot, and the few raggedy characters that dangle in it, has a vision. The seaside setting—a town too generic to warrant a name—constitutes the movie’s entire universe. Although it’s in Australia—the accents and Christmastime picnics and cans of Jack Daniel’s and Cola (say whaaa?) bespeak that—this place seems like those pockets of Americana, otherwise invisible, that old sitcoms were once contained in, at a remove from the somber realities of the world beyond. It’s like Lumberton in Blue Velvet—an aw-shucks idyll with big-city crime rotting out its edges—except here all classes of life blot together in a surreally convenient way. Though they have the appurtenances of modern life on the outside, inwardly, these characters live in some gloamy gray area before The Simpsons and The Truman Show. Edgerton probably only intended to keep things simple and economical, but the effect is peculiarly unsettling: an empty, farcical world, complete with a sitcom stock company—yet without humor, or much levity of any kind. Even the assignations are chillingly banal. The lovers long to escape—but where to? In terms of atmosphere, The Square is like The Ghost Writer’s insensate kid brother—like an existential drama by a prisoner who didn’t even know he was incarcerated.

The Square isn’t a showcase of the Edgertons’ creativity—only their craftsmanship. But they do show promise, and, once given the freer rein of a bigger budget, perhaps their imaginations will be unloosed. For obvious reasons, they’ve been compared to the Coen brothers, and hopefully that compliment will prove auspicious. The Coens’ first feature, Blood Simple, was also a pared-down noir. And it was also overrated.