Gilbey on Film: meet the step-parents

"Cyrus" shows that fractured families are a rich source for movie makers.

Films are our fairytales, but few of them are as explicit in their allegiance to this form as the kinky comedy Cyrus, which opens on Friday. It belongs to a comparatively recent cinematic sub-genre which takes as its subject the tensions that arise from the fluidity of modern domestic life; let's call it "step-family entertainment".

When this particular fairytale begins, you're not quite sure who the ogre is. The likeliest candidate appears to be John (John C Reilly), who is first seen with pants-down and buttocks out. He even likens himself to Shrek when he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei). Could she be the beautiful princess who falls for the ogre? Well, sort of.

But that ship has sailed. She is in love, unconsummated love, with another ogre -- her obese adult son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who doesn't take kindly to her having male friends, or being away from the house. (That house, on a featureless Los Angeles street, demonstrates the importance of good location scouting: mounted on a hillside, it seems to float above pavement level in what must be a nod to the tower in which Rapunzel is imprisoned.)

On those occasions when Molly sleeps with John at his apartment, she makes sure to steal away in order to get home before Cyrus wakes in the morning and, presumably, something or someone gets turned into a pumpkin. There's another allusion to Cinderella in some important monkey business involving shoes. When John stays over at Molly's house, his trainers are gone in the morning, and he has to pad to work in his stocking feet; their disappearance goes gradually from sticking-point to crisis-point, an escalation not untypical of family life.

What's fascinating about Cyrus is how it shifts cruelty and treachery away from the step-parent (as seen in Snow White or Hansel and Gretel) and onto the potential step-child. The original purpose of the wicked step-mother figure, as anyone who knows their Bruno Bettelheim will recall, was to help the child rationalise and segregate its mother's pleasure-denying or disciplinarian tendencies: by dividing the mother in this way, the child is able to keep intact the mother's loving, nurturing side. With time and emotional maturity, we come to realise that it's all the same: it's all mother. If we don't, we may turn into that victim who clings to the attractive side of his or her partner by insisting that "(s)he only hits me when (s)he is drunk/depressed/skint."

For all the creepy and inappropriate comments made by young Cyrus, perhaps the one which terrifies John the most is when the lad says "It's great to finally have a new Dad", mere hours after their first meeting. Jonah Hill's age and girth makes the mental image conjured by this line even more unsettling.

I think that's part of what lies beneath the dread in Cyrus. Fear of commitment is one thing. But what if someone wants more than anything to commit, as John does, only for there to be another adult who makes that impossible? Like any decent analysis of family, the picture is a study of the forces of control floundering in the face of chaos.

It's worth noting too that Reilly starred in another recent example of step-family entertainment, the curious 2008 comedy Step Brothers, in which he and Will Ferrell played grown-up but infantilised children whose single parents marry, making resentful step-siblings of these middle-aged morons. Like Cyrus, it shows the family unit in free-fall: if you can acquire siblings in your forties (or, in Cyrus, a son who is to all intents and purposes a walking, Godzilla-sized Oedipus complex) then anything might feasibly happen. All bets are off.

My own favourite "step"-movie remains the impossibly tense thriller The Stepfather (the 1987 original, not the recent remake, dummy). It's a highly intelligent study of the fissures caused not just by the jigsaw-puzzle of step-family life, but by the entire concept of family. The unattainable ideal of domestic bliss drives Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) to first insinuate himself with a widow and her children, and then to slaughter them when they fall short of his impossible expectations.

Perhaps the filmmakers' choicest decision was to open with Jerry calmly vacating the scene of one massacre before moving on to the next unsuspecting, fatherless clan. The movie is a nasty, clever little cracker that won't lose its pertinence until we outlaw family life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue