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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Needy Men: “Cyrus”

This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of teenage girls clamored together in hopes of seeing the newest installment of the Twilight saga, Eclipse, one more piece of that worn-hearted document detailing the torturous love triangle of beautiful Bella, werewolf Jacob, and vampire Edward. I confess that I have no plans to see it, not really out of straight-boy smugness so much as plain disinterest. I did see the first film adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's 4-book series, and was impressed with director Catherine Hardwicke's handling of the smaller domestic moments of poor outsider Bella getting closer to her father, shot delicately with hand-held cameras in a lo-fi aesthetic. Unfortunately, the film gradually becomes another videogame/CGI spectacle filled with Zack Snyder-style slow-motion dedicated more to fashion than to character, losing me and debilitating any possible interest to re-enter this teen vampire world. But from what I gather, having seen that first film and reading so much about the sequels, this saga is basically a woman's fantasy of being trapped between two handsome, but ultimately needy, young men. These guys seem as tremendously well-intentioned as they are whiny, in a steady competition of emotion as they duke it out, vampire versus werewolf, for the grand prize of the loving consoling warmth of the feminine passage from whence they came. This is the rather off-putting secret behind every needy-guy romance story, usually not realized by the author creating them. When you strip it down, it's the narrative of a man seeking approval from Mommy. Such a reductionist perspective turns a lot of people off, which is why the repression of civilization is so important. But for as much negativity generated by Freud in our post-feminist academic circles, I can't help but perceive blatant – if unsavory – truth in it.

It's welcoming then that Mark and Jay Duplass should also be releasing, in a far more limited manner, their own love story of needy men, as the mother's affections are the top prize in a duel of infantile male wills. Cyrus is the Needy Man saga audiences should probably check out this week, as it deconstructs our romances for what they are, its handheld zoom-in visual style setting an ironic counterpoint that distances it from most other Man Boy comedies. It's an incredibly funny film, even cynical, but it retains moving warmth throughout, without once ever becoming kitsch or breaking its spell of biting humor. It also has two of the most affecting male performances of the year, both graduates of the Man Boy R-rated comedy world that's come to overbearing popularity in the last ten years thanks to Judd Apatow: John C. Reilly (who was in one of the better Apatow-produced comedies, Step Brothers) as the grown ne'er-do-well freelance loser looking for love, and Jonah Hill (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Get Him to the Greek in the Apatow universe) as the full-grown spawn of Reilly's love interest, played with sexy verve by Marisa Tomei. What struck me about Cyrus was how it seemed to be moving beyond the bare frat-boy sensibilities of Apatow's loser-male world, and directing our attention to how the Apatow-styled protagonist may sweetly amount to an obsessed stalker – which is not so much a critique of the movies and how they may be taking for granted the aberrant behavior in males that the films portray, but rather a critique of a prudish culture that is so emasculated that it requires movies such as Apatow's for a much needed catharsis.

I bring up Twilight and Apatow because I think that they may be a part of the same beast, at least as products of popular consumption. In spite of their differences, both products emulate the nice-guy man-child who becomes needy. In Stephanie Meyers' world, they're just a bit more handsome, and the neediness is not played for that neediness. The empathy that we feel for the characters, whether the romantically Gothic dashing men of Twilight or the jestering doofuses of Apatow, poises a strange disconnect in the man-child world of Fiction and the happenstance of relationships in Real Life. Of course, whether dashing or dorky, the assertive males in romances both Gothic and comic amount to something a little creepy when the prism of fiction is removed. Since the 1990s, perhaps no film has been as damaging to young men than Cameron Crowe's otherwise perfect Say Anything, which communicated the transcendent romantic truth to millions of budding teenagers in love that the woman who just dumped you would be receptive to having you play Peter Gabriel outside her window, waking her up at dawn. Or for that matter, throwing away "logic" while following your genius prodigy girlfriend to London, simultaneously placating her by censoring your sense of humor the instant she is offended ("That's ageism," Diane Court tells Lloyd Dobler as he makes an observation about the elderly; Dobler immediately agrees to change his ways. The courtship resumes). Doblerism is good for the manufacturing of well-educated and handsome needy dudes who would probably benefit, in terms of romantic success, if only they would avert their eyes from Cameron Crowe and instead become acquainted with Cary Grant and Clark Gable, both of whom have personas that are unfortunately far less ecumenical in the post-feminist world.

I'm not complaining about the problems of representation in Film, or the question as to whether men are emasculated in contemporary Culture. That's not my concern. What does interest me is this question as to whether the films, like the people watching them, are kind of fooling themselves. Like a good friend blinded by infatuation, I would sort of like to see them reflecting on their scenarios with a bit more dark honesty, and maybe have the courage to laugh a little more at themselves. Of course, Apatow's films do laugh at themselves, up to a point. Their beginnings and endings however still are a little candy-coated, a lovely delusion to make the pill a pleasant catharsis for the manboys ingesting them.

Cyrus makes its Freudian thoughts on the Manboy Generation overt, the morbid element of two manboys fighting over Mommy not at all veiled by rib-nudges or zesty in-jokes. John (Reilly) is simply lonely guy whose best friend is his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), from whom he's been divorced seven years. A failure with women, prone to drinking too much in order to approach anyone, he's caught off-guard by a beautiful and eccentric female he recognizes as being much too attractive for him, Molly (Marisa Tomei). "I'm Shrek," he says to her. "What are you doing in the forest with Shrek?" His stupid impulses lure him away from this unexpected flirtation so that he can sing and dance to "the best song ever," The Human League's "Don't You Want Me?" This becomes a scene of pronounced embarrassment, seen in so many other like-minded comedies. But the moment changes on a dime as the crowd, at first so embarrassed for John, is suddenly responsive the moment when Molly "saves" him by taking up the female vocals for the song, dancing with him. The two of them end up sleeping together and making plans for the next night.

We instantly recognize that John is too desperate, too happy, and I was a little afraid for him at this point (few actors can play pathetic as well as John C. Reilly). The film crosses a very dark line when it makes no bones about the apparent creepiness of John as he stalks Molly back to her house, to find out why she keeps on leaving him early. Why won't she spend the night? The answer, John finds out the next morning, is embodied in the plump figure of Cyrus (Hill), her 22-year-old son whom she lives with and dotes on.

At this point the film could become a few things. It could be a generic Freudian war between incoming Stepfather and Needy Son, or a cuddly male bonding film. But I appreciated how, though the Duplasses show how all of these characters in this bizarre love triangle are flawed, Hill's Cyrus is given the kind of freakiness of almost Norman Bates-caliber awkwardness that Jonah Hill's appearance deserves (not to be harsh on Hill's looks, but even in Superbad he looks like he would be perfect as a serial killer). Just as John is an omega male of Generation X, emasculated and needing feminine warmth to stave off loneliness and his pathetic disposition, Cyrus is something of a monster created by too much mommy-love, adored and adoring to a fault, manipulating and pulling strings to maneuver control of Molly to the point that she still keeps her bedroom door open at night.

The kind of passive-aggressive combat between Cyrus and John is not the chuckle-yuk-chuckle nudge-nudge comedy of Apatow's work (which I should point out that I often enjoy very much), but is distanced by the Duplass' aesthetic approach of documentary-style cinematography, which creates a distance between the characters and the audience, and thereby prevents the safe comedy of rib-nudging. But it also gives Cyrus a more genuinely funny demeanor as its often-improvised story undulates, and we notice that the plague of masculine neediness is not only restricted to the two principal leads, but also to the fiancé of John's ex (who grows needy for Mommy attention when John hovers around). The anger generated by these men who want their mommies puts the Manboy comedy in the Freudian territory where it belongs, a place where an audience can observe itself acting stupid and foolish, and can be motivated to do more than passively laugh along.

The transparency of Freudian dynamics in Cyrus is the kind of thing that a lot of women might find nightmarish; after all, Freud is despised in academia currently as a hogwash misogynist who did more harm than good. Nevertheless, whatever refutations we can make about him, I still have a hard time denying that a lot of the time when it comes down to love and sex for men, it strangely comes all back to Mommy (Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks short from New York Stories is another interesting example of this uncomfortable realization). The endings of most Manboy comedies are jovial and goofy escapes, where the characters conquer their fears or passions or insecurities. The blink of whimsy at the conclusion of Cyrus, where the warmth of the welcoming mother draws the pouting son/lover back inside, is funnier and more fulfilling perhaps because it is so much more unnerving and frank, something needed in a pop culture over-saturated with Needy Men that is only creating more Needy Men.

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