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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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain