Cyrus: Love in the Time of Discomfort
People are strange. As much as I want to dismiss Cyrus as being exaggerated for laughs or too cartoony, the truth of the matter (and the genius of the film) is that people are like this. Life is full of moments of discomfort– complications that we must face and try to squirm our way out of. Cyrus is full of these squirmy moments, with a pitch-perfect script and direction by the Duplass Brothers. They push us into the realm of the uncomfortable without ever taking us so far that we can’t stand it anymore. At a time when most comedies want to push absurdism and over-the-top character spouting memorable one-liners, here comes a comedy of human relationships: we get three fleshed-out characters and we observe their interactions and conflicts. It’s a breath of fresh, if awkward, air.
John (John C. Reilly) is losing at life. His apartment is a wreck, he sits around his house in sweatpants, and he comes to find out his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) is getting re-married. Jamie begs him to come out to a party, where he has a few drinks and proceeds to strike out with every girl he tries to talk to, in a hilarious scene that is full of truth. Finally, a girl comes up to him– Molly (Marisa Tomei), who seems totally out of his league in every way but has taken a shining to him. John falls hard for her, but wonders why after they go out she rushes home at night. He discovers she has a live-in adult son named Cyrus (Jonah Hill), whose relationship with his mom can only be described as peculiar at best. They spend all of their time together, and they have a chummy best-friends relationship– bad news for John, as he begins to suspect that Cyrus is attempting to keep them apart in subtle ways. After a while, things turn… not so subtle.
All three of these actors do great work. John C. Reilly has made playing the lovable earnest doofus into an artform, and he attacks some of these scenes with impeccable timing and an inhuman desire to embrace the awkwardness of every moment. In the early scene where he hits on women at the party, he knows that someone striking out isn’t as funny as someone crashing and burning. He takes different approaches for each woman he hits on, and every one of them isn’t just a failure– it’s a gaping black hole of misery for a guy who’s spent seven years failing with women. His transition into the relationship, unconventional as it may be, is full of him trying to do the right thing and occasionally messing up. These mess-ups are as funny as the successes are sweet. Marisa Tomei has a tricky role here, needing to be both a believably caring mother to Cyrus and a believably interested hot lady to John: neither task is easy. “What are you doing out here in the forest with Shrek?” John asks Molly when they meet. Tomei has a natural kindness to her characters all throughout her career, and even though this career has moments where we’re not sure why she’d stay with John, or moments why we’re not sure why John would stay with her, her sweetness somehow keeps the film grounded.
The real joy comes from Jonah Hill’s most subtle work to date. Hill has played characters throughout his career that always seem on edge, like he’s filling up ready to explode at any moment. Here, he keeps that all in his eyes, while his face is as deadpan as ever. Everything about Cyrus is unsettling and funny, from his neat plaid button-up shirts to his too-tidy haircut– he’s like John’s personal young chubby John Hinckley. When he first plays his music for John, the intensity of Cyrus’s stare is perfect: does he want John to like him or fear him? Or both? Hill has sashayed away with a number of films in the past, but this is the first one in memory where his serious scenes are as effective as his funny ones. It suggests a long career of character actor work ahead of him, even after the Apatow glory days are long past. The Duplass Brothers have the three perfect pieces for their even-keeled script. No one is normal, no one is fully to blame. Every character makes you scratch your head and think, “What the hell?” at various points in the film. It would have been easy to make Cyrus a character worthy of dismissal, a cartoonish stalker with demented plans. Instead, he’s just a weird kid who’s overprotective of his mom. How many relationships between adults with kids are broken up because the kid didn’t approve? I’d be willing to bet a fairly noteworthy number. Here’s a comedy that takes that truth into dark and awkward places– and I laughed the whole film long.