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“Just fake it,” says the immensely talented comedic actress Amanda Peet in the trailer for the new HBO series Togetherness. “You see this smile? I’m dead inside.”
In that moment, anyone familiar with the films of brothers Mark and Jay Duplass should recognize their handiwork on this, the New Orleans pair’s first foray into series television. They are, after all, our top annalists of how little real life tends to resemble our expectations. What the Mississippi river was to Mark Twain, tight hallways in the tiny homes chock-full of unemployed and unwilling-to-leave family members are to the brothers Duplass. They are the bards of the un-launched, mining comedy chronicling birds whose wings were seemingly clipped at birth.
They never went deeper into that dark cave than in the cringe-tastic 2010 comic drama Cyrus, a twist on a concept Sophocles first laid down some 2,500 years ago with Oedipus Rex. Told with a jittery sense of surprise that can only come from an absolute commitment to honesty, the film tells the story of John C. Reilly’s John, a static lump of a man in a “dark, existential place,” thanks to a divorce almost a decade ago. His life would be little more than moping and Internet porn if it wasn’t for his best friend and on-the-verge-of-remarrying ex-wife, whose prodding manages to get him to a New Year’s party. There he discovers that his heart does indeed still beat when Marisa Tomei’s Molly stumbles upon him peeing in a garden (“What are you doing here in the forest with Shrek?” he asks) and the pair bond, as all good people should, over the Human League.
The fact that the film isn’t called John & Molly indicates trouble ahead. It comes in the form of Molly’s titular son and roomie, by far Jonah Hill’s most trenchant and disturbing screen creation to date, and yes, this includes Wolf of Wall Street. As a would-be musician and photographer, whose relationship with his mother borders on the inappropriate, Hill manages to be creepier than Chuckie the doll on a playdate yet more vulnerable than a pound puppy. Joined by Tomei, who is equally complicated and wonderful as a mom unable to see how her over-coddling comes from her own fear and neediness, and Reilly, whose sad sack becomes filled with purpose and vinegar as Cyrus starts to go off the rails, they form indie cinema’s answer to the ultimate power trio.
While Cyrus may play like the most awkward dinner party invitation you ever reluctantly accepted, it rewards your presence with its open heart and fully articulated characters. Despite the claims of Amanda Peet in Togetherness, the secret weapon of the Duplass brother has always been in showing all the ways people’s damaged inner lives pierce the facades to which they desperately cling. They are the rare filmmakers who understand that true comedy comes not just from the goofy things we do but from all of the damage we pretend we’re so adept at hiding.