Cyrus (Fox Searchlight), a 90-minute wisp of a romantic comedy directed by the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass ( The Puffy Chair, Baghead) will divide critical opinion in ways disproportionate to its modest ambition. Those who have a bone to pick with “mumblecore”—the awkwardly named semi-movement from which the Duplasses spring—will find the movie irritatingly random, too in love with its meandering, partly improvised dialogue and occasionally opaque characters. Others, champions of this still-young tradition of minimalist movies with loose, jagged rhythms, may find Cyrus a disappointingly watered-down concession to mainstream dude comedy in the Apatow mold. Then come the significant swaths of potential viewers who don’t know mumblecore cinema from albacore tuna. They’ll come to this movie because 1) Jonah Hill ruled in Superbad, 2) John C. Reilly was funny as hell in Walk Hard, and 3) Marisa Tomei looked good on a stripper pole in The Wrestler.
As it happens, I concur with only two out of those three statements. Reilly and Tomei are the kind of actors who class up whatever joint they appear in, but the appeal of Jonah Hill is generally lost on me. It’s only when he plays the kind of character he did in Forgetting Sarah Marshall—a needy, clingy outsider who’s constantly trying and failing to conceal his own base motives—that Hill’s popularity begins to make sense to me. His Cyrus, a 21-year-old college dropout who lives with his mother, is that kind of character. Cyrus—and, to a less pathological degree, everyone else in this movie—invests a great deal of energy in trying to come across as an exemplary human being, a sensitive soul, a good listener. All the while, he’s secretly a-boil with hurt and rage. Cyrus is the kind of character who, in a less offbeat movie, would eventually be found to have a trove of flayed squirrels hidden in his garage. Without spoiling Cyrus for anyone, I can permit myself to reveal that Jonah Hill’s character harbors nary a flayed squirrel. The violence this film inflicts on its characters and its audience is mainly psychological, but it’s none the less painful for that.
Cyrus is the movie’s title character but not really its protagonist. That would be John (Reilly), a freelance film editor in his 40s who’s been alone and depressed since his divorce seven years ago. (He was dumped by the always-exquisite Catherine Keener—I can see how that would get a guy down.) Dragged by his concerned ex and her now-fiancé (Matt Walsh) to a house party, John strikes out mortifyingly with girl after girl. Even more disastrous than his attempts at suavity is a last-ditch campaign to disarm with candor—”I’m in a tailspin. I’m really hurting here.” But though that confession sends the woman it’s aimed at scurrying for cover, it’s overheard by Molly (Tomei), who’s touched by John’s raw honesty. In one of the movie’s best moments, she comes to his rescue when he drunkenly decides to turn the sedate cocktail party into a dance party by turning up the music full blast and bellowing “Dance party!” (Who among us can truthfully say we haven’t been there?)
Things develop quickly between Molly and John—a little too quickly to be dramatically plausible—but he can’t figure out why, even as they’re falling madly in love, he can’t convince her to spend the night. So he tails her car home one day—and finds himself face to face with Cyrus, her grown son, who’s both creepily solicitous and a master of passive aggression. While guilelessly seeming to encourage his mother’s promising new relationship, Cyrus does everything in his power to sabotage it, taking them each aside, Iago-style, to plant doubts about the other’s level of commitment. Midway through the movie, there’s a satisfying comic shift as the two men privately acknowledge how much they loathe each other while continuing to put on a touchy-feely show for Molly’s benefit.
The Oedipal myth lurks just beneath the surface of nearly every one of this movie’s jokes, and also provides much of its drama. On their daily outings to the park, Molly and Cyrus cuddle and tickle each other like lovers, and Cyrus insists that she sleep in his room whenever he has night terrors. In one line of dialogue that’s a little too on-the-nose, Cyrus assures Molly that her new relationship is OK, because “you need someone to love you in the way that I can’t love you.” Mining the incest prohibition for laughs in what’s essentially a light romantic comedy is a bold move, and for the first two-thirds of the movie, it works surprisingly well. But as long as the Duplasses are willing to go there, I can’t help but wish they’d gone a little further. The unhealthy intensity of the Molly/Cyrus bond is treated more as an obstacle to John and Molly’s potential happiness than as a story point in itself. If John really is falling for a woman who’s in love with her own son, their problems aren’t going to be over just because the son gets out of the way.
There’s a mumblecore trick, which I usually quite like, of ending a movie just a moment “too soon”—stopping a beat before a conventional film would, thus forcing the viewer to decide what conclusions to draw from that brief last shot. (Andrew Bujalski deploys this technique with finesse in both Funny Ha Ha and Beeswax.) But Cyrus ends a full 10 minutes too soon, with all three of the main characters’ emotional arcs still incomplete. The oblique final scene seems intended to leave the viewer in a state of delicious suspense, but it feels more like a frustratingly underwritten limbo.
Slate V: The Critics on Toy Story 3, Jonah Hex, and Cyrus