'Cyrus' at SXSW: When the Camera Upstages the Acting


Fox Searchlight

The new dramedy Cyrus premiered at SXSW this weekend to an enthusiastic crowd here in Austin. So what if Sundance got it first? The stars John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill and directors the Duplass Brothers (the mumblecore heroes behind Puffy Chair and Baghead), screened the film Saturday night to a full house. The plot is about a middle-aged loser (Reilly) who gets the girl (Marisa Tomei), only to find out that her twentysomething (Hill) son refuses to let her go. (You can watch the trailer below if you want to pretty much get the whole plot before seeing the film.)

It's a fine story, with plenty of comedy and drama and great performances by Reilly and Tomei. It's also a surprising look at the acting chops of Jonah Hill, who plays his part just creepy enough to be both likable and disturbing. (Here's hoping he'll have more un-Apatow roles in the future.)

This is the Duplass brothers' first studio film (for the 20th Century Fox indie division Fox Searchlight) and in the Q&A afterward they gave some insight to their unique way of filming, which they hinted caused some distress at the studio. They shoot without storyboarding rehearsals or table reads—the first time the actors say their lines to each other is in front of the cameras. They also shoot in sequence (chronologically). And during shooting, they take a 30 minute walk every day, to clear their heads. Werner Herzog might be able to get away with it, but with a pair of up-and-coming gentlemen like the Duplass brothers it must have driven the "suits" nuts.

The one problem—and it may or may not be a big one, depending on your tastes—is the duo's camera work, which might not have caused many headaches for the studio, but left me reaching for aspirin. The film was shot in what I would call The Office Style, using handheld cameras and constantly zooming in and out in rapid bursts, which is fine when Michael Scott is recovering from burning his foot on a George Foreman grill, but altogether distracting when you're trying to watch an intimate moment between two fine actors.

I believe this method of bringing the shot in and out is called the "snap zoom," which is only appropriate since it causes cinematic whiplash. It disorients and removes the viewer, reminding you that the camera is there, that this is all being filmed. I suppose it works for documentaries and action scenes, but in an film that strives to be so intimate and human, it's disappointing. You move the camera around too much, and the viewer can't ever forget its there. You can see a few instances of it (and there are many) in the trailer for Cyrus:

The directors were given the opportunity to explain their choices during a Q&A after the premiere, but didn't say much. If anything, they seemed a little defensive about it, but you can take a look and decide for yourself (at the 2:00 mark):

Does this style of rapid zooming make the story more human, as the directors claim? Or does it just distract the viewer from that humanity? I'm in the latter camp, obviously, but you can give your take in the comments below.