REVIEW: Cyrus [2010]

“Its like a crippled tree reaching for heaven”

I’m not sure anyone makes awkward comedies quite like Jay and Mark Duplass. Even though their newly found mainstream status as filmmakers has caused an evolution from the old days of Mumblecore, it hasn’t knocked those off-kilter sensibilities away. Their latest endeavor, Cyrus, is a huge step forward in that it has enticed a reasonably seasoned cast of actors to lend the film a more professional feel, for lack of a better term. That’s not to say the previous collaborations weren’t, they simply involved lesser-known, amateur actors seeking a big break, much like the brothers at the helm. You’ll still see a familiar face in Steve Zissis if you look close enough and don’t blink, but it is really the trio of John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Marisa Tomei that gives what could be an uncomfortable 90-minutes enough heart to stick through until the end. The central crux is an extreme device of Oedipus Complex crossing paths with the transformative power of love over depression and could easily have gone off the rails if not for Hill and Reilly giving the care and attention to intricate characters possessed of strong emotions.

The Duplass Brothers are not afraid to go in voyeuristic places, making you squirm in your seat as you view the people onscreen surviving insanely embarrassing situations. To start the whole thing out with Catherine Keener walking in on her ex-husband pleasuring himself shows this fact quickly. It’s been seven years since her Jamie and Reilly’s John have been separated and through it all they have remained close friends. But while his downward spiral—the same one that broke their marriage apart—has expanded and left him in a funk of solitude and self-loathing, she has met a new man (Matt Walsh) and is soon to be wed once more. Knowing the pain this news gives John, she invites him to a party of interesting and important people, forgetting the fact he might not fit in, but knowing if he doesn’t interact with others soon, he may be alone forever. It’s serendipitous that his crescendo of drunkenness turns a pathetic schtick of failed conversation starters into an even more pathetic divulging of his emotional crutches and isolated feelings because a sensitive woman overhears his monologue with a sense of recognition. A disastrous evening soon turns into a karaoke moment for the ages and a happily ever after as the ‘princess’ seduces ‘Shrek’.

Too good to be true, however, John can’t quite suppress his fears and insecurities to be a part of a relationship that sees his lover, Molly (Tomei), leave in the middle of the night with no explanation. So, that’s right, he stalks her and makes an impromptu visit, running into her 21-year old son Cyrus (Hill). And this is where the film gets interesting in a social and psychological way. What appears to be a coupling of two people from different worlds but with love in their hearts morphs into an odd triangle of boyfriend/girlfriend versus mother/son. Cyrus is a creepy young man with psychopathic tendencies of sly smiles, stoic patience, and repressed anger bubbling right below the surface. He calls his mom Molly and says they are best friends; they do everything together from making music, taking photos at the park, and sharing their lives. She is unsure of how he’ll take the introduction of John to their pair because of what she knows was an over-bearing, co-dependent period of raising him. But where she only sees acceptance, John discovers carefully hatched plans of sabotage—a young man playing his mother to eventually resent her lover and once more return to his arms.

With a short runtime, the Duplass Brothers have a keen grasp on just how much offbeat awkwardness an audience can take. They ease us in with an empathetic look at a broken man finally finding a happiness he never thought he’d experience again. We begin to relate with Reilly’s everyman—a role he’s perfected over the years—and root for his surprising ability to win a woman like Tomei to succeed and flourish. Even when Hill is brought into the fold, we don’t quite know exactly what direction it will go. An uncomfortable dinner conversation and troublesome nightly rituals of open doors cause us to wonder, the strange lack of an invite the next morning for John to join their daily routine adds to the confusion, but the disappearance of his shoes finally spills it all overboard. There really is something wrong with the dynamic between Molly and Cyrus, but until John does more digging and more over-analyzing, we are unaware if the boy is simply immature and possibly mentally deficient or if he’s systematically and consciously doing what he can to ruin this intruder to his utopia.

Cyrus’s progression is methodical, but never boring as it lets us look through the window on John’s insecurities. Almost the entire film is shot from his perspective—we only see what he does, never the characters in his life without his presence inferring on their actions. In this way, we take his journey side by side, making our own deductions and commenting to ourselves whether we’d have done the same. Only when it is up to Cyrus to discover whether his happiness was mutual exclusive to his mother’s or not do we have a moment devoid of John. At that point Reilly had made up his mind; his story was over. There isn’t much left of the film when it occurs, but the subtle change in viewpoints finally allows us to see that the whole thing really was about the boy’s evolution. Sure, Reilly needed a catalyst to break from his funk, (his nuanced performances never cease to amaze since you’d assume he’d merely be a doltish sad-sack), and Tomei was desperate for a man’s touch other than her son’s, (her renaissance as a top-notch talent continues, making us forget the forgettable decade between My Cousin Vinny and In the Bedroom), but it is Hill who owns each and every scene. It’s a performance that risked pure caricature—removing any sense of soul—many times, but his craft kept it true, earning the final scene and finishing the film on its truly genuine note.

Cyrus 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei and John C. Reilly; Photo by Chuck Zlotnick
[2] John C. Reilly singing “Don’t You Want Me?” in CYRUS; Photo by Chuck Zlotnick
[3] John C. Reilly stars as John and Jonah Hill stars as Cyrus in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ Cyrus (2010)

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