Cyrus (United States, 2010)

June 15, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cyrus Poster

Every summer it seems there's a pleasant surprise lurking in an unexpected place. This year, Cyrus is a candidate. The cast might lead one to believe this is a Judd Apatow movie; after all, three of the four principals (John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener) have worked with him. However, a quick scan of the credits reveals the unanticipated: no Apatow, but both Scotts (Ridley and Tony) are listed as executive producers. That's as good an explanation as any as to how low-key indie directors Mark and Jay Duplass (previous movie: Baghead) loaded up their production with recognizable names. Star power aside, the movie is a delightful little gem, effectively mixing the comfortable with the creepy while blending romance, character development, and the kind of deliciously dark comedy that most filmmakers shun.

The movie opens with John (John C. Reilly) receiving an emotional blow: his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), with whom he remains on good terms, is marrying her boyfriend, Tim (Matt Walsh). Feeling guilty about leaving him "alone," Jamie invites John to accompany her and Tim to a party - the hope being that John and one of the single women there will hit it off. He's reluctant but, after a little persuasion, he agrees. There, he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei). After a little conversation and a song and dance routine, one thing leads to another but, when he awakens in the morning, he's sleeping beside a note, not a woman. A repeat performance also results in Molly stealthily exiting in the middle of the night. This time, however, a curious John tails her to her destination. He discovers that the "secret" she is hiding is a grown son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Initially, Cyrus seems like a relatively normal guy (although maybe a little creepy around the edges), but it soon becomes clear that he has "Mommy issues." And his relationship with Molly is a little too touchy-feely for comfort. Faster than John can say "Oedipus," he and Cyrus are at each other's throats.

Cyrus may feature mainstream stars but its tone is pure indie. The comedy is of a sort that may baffle some multiplex movie-goers. For the most part, it's subtle and often very dark, and it's of a very different sort than one might expect from a John C. Reilly/Jonah Hill pairing. The level of raunchiness is exceptionally low (there is some sex but no nudity) and, although there is a fair amount of profanity, its application might be termed "tame" when compared to other R-rated comedies. The Duplass brothers' view of humor is skewed. Rather than seeking to double over viewers with guffaws, their approach is to mix less overt jokes with elements of embarrassment and discomfort. One side benefit of this is that the trajectory of the narrative is unpredictable. By taking chances early, the Duplasses inject an element of doubt into where the characters will end up. It's a rare thing not to be able to guess with 95% certainty the ending of a movie ten minutes after it has started. Cyrus doesn't do anything extremely radical, but its willingness to stray from established formulas makes it more engaging than the usual 90-minute comedy.

Another difference between this and many less ambitious genre entries is that it treats its characters like individuals rather than caricatures. We become invested in the relationship between John and Molly and enjoy the barbed warfare that erupts between Cyrus and John. (I was briefly reminded of The War of the Roses, although the films are fundamentally different.) The few missteps (such as an overreliance on shaky hand-held shots), do nothing to damage the integrity of the character interaction. Even Cyrus, creepy and dysfunctional as he is, reveals dimensions one almost never observes in the antagonist of a traditional comedy.

Cyrus reminds us of what a great actor John C. Reilly can be when he's working with a solid script and not mailing it in. This is a resurrection of the actor before he collapsed into Will Ferrell's orbit - a skilled thespian who can use his craggy features and everyday looks to bring to life a character whose prime attribute is not stupidity. For Jonah Hill, it's an opportunity to move a little outside his comfort zone. Hill often plays a socially inept individual, but he's never gone quite this far afield. Hill does some interesting things with Cyrus - there are scenes in which we almost think he's normal until we see something in his eyes or in the way he cocks his head. Based on this performance, I could see Hill playing a convincing serial killer. Catherine Keener and Marisa Tomei are delightful as always.

The homogeneity of current movies assures a limit to Cyrus' box-office appeal. It's rare that a non-cookie cutter motion picture is warmly greeted by movie-goers who are nonplused by productions that color outside the lines. Cyrus is affecting, but not in a clean, easily recognizable way. It is funny, but in a warped manner more likely to provoke unease than unbridled laughter. Many who see this movie will leave shaking their heads in puzzlement, having expected something else. But a cadre of viewers who appreciate the offbeat and applaud the chances taken by the Duplass brothers will exit with a smile and maybe even an understated fist-pump.

Cyrus (United States, 2010)

Director: Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass
Cast: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh
Screenplay: Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass
Cinematography: Jas Shelton
Music: Michael Andrews
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2010-06-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1