Last Tuesday night, as we watched the end credits of Cyrus rolling across the screen at the Plano Angelika, a very dear and close friend of mine leaned over and whispered in my ear, “That was a really odd fucking movie.”
(Actually, it was two weeks ago. Sorry, I started this review a while ago and only recently returned to finish it.)
And he’s right. Though the film is worth seeing (though I’d honestly suggest waiting until it comes out on DVD unless you’re just the world’s biggest John C. Reilly or Jonah Hill fan), Cyrus really is an odd fucking movie.
Cyrus is the latest film from Jay and Mark Duplass, the two brothers responsible for 2008’s Baghead, one of the unacknowledged great films of the last decade. In Cyrus , John C. Reilly plays a character named — appropriately enough — John. John is a likable loser, a less musical version of the character Reilly played in Chicago. When the movie opens, John is depressed over the fact that his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), is getting married again. At Jamie’s suggestion, he goes to a party where he proceeds to have too much to drink, flirts awkwardly with every woman he sees, and somehow manages to charm Molly (Marisa Tomei). Molly is soon sleeping over at John’s house but every morning, John wakes up to discover that she’s either already left or is in the process of sneaking out. John asks her if she’s married. Molly replies that she’s not but is still vague about why she never stays the entire night. Finally, one morning, John follows Molly after she leaves. He sits out in front of her house and, after she’s left for work, John proceeds to creep around outside the house.
And, of course, its while he’s doing all of this creepy stalker stuff that he first meets Cyrus (played, of course, by Jonah Hill). Cyrus is Molly’s 22 year-old son and from the minute he first appears, its obvious that there’s something off about him. He’s far too friendly and speaks in the oddly stilted cadence of someone who is obviously making an effort to act “normal.” He spends all of his time composing New Agey synthesizer music in an elaborate home recording studio. Of course, the main sign that there’s something odd about Cyrus is that he’s played by Jonah Hill.
However, the main thing that distinguishes Cyrus is just how close he is to his mother. From the first moment that we see him and Molly interact (he’s playing his music and Molly enters the house and immediately starts dancing to it), its obvious that Cyrus is Oedipus, Norman Bates, and Yanni all wrapped up into one package. And, obviously, he views John as being competition…
Cyrus is an uneven film, one that starts out strong but — once the title character is actually introduced — suddenly seems to get hit by an identity crisis. Is it a realistic portrait of sad, lonely people trying to find love in uncertain times or is it an Apatowish mix of stoner sentiment and over-the-top comedy? Is Cyrus meant to be the emotionally wounded, painfully insecure outsider that he appears to be the movie’s more contemplative moments or is he just a sociopathic comedic device that Reilly has to overcome in order to pursue his relationship with Tomei? That’s the question that is at the heart of Cyrus and discovering the answer is the film’s entire excuse for existing. Unfortunately, the Duplass Brothers don’t seem to know the answer themselves and as a result, the entire film feels directionless and we’re left with too many unanswered questions.
For instance, where is Cyrus’s father? It’s mentioned by both Cyrus and Molly that the father is no longer in their lives but why? Though its never explicitly stated, its obvious that both Cyrus and Molly have suffered abuse in the past, probably at his hands. However, the issue itself is never directly confronted and its hard to believe that John wouldn’t have asked about it at some point. For that matter, beyond her role as Cyrus’s mother and John’s girlfriend, Molly isn’t given any back story whatsoever. Considering the fact that the entire movie is about how Cyrus and John feel towards her, it’s interesting that she’s never given a scene where she really gets to explain how she truly feels towards either of them. A good deal of the film’s attitude towards Molly can be seen in the fact that, while a major plot point hinges on her being at her job as opposed to at home, we never find out just what exactly it is that she does for a living.
That’s unfortunate because, in many ways, Cyrus shows a good deal of promise and psychological insight. One of the subtle pleasures of the film is seeing how all of the various relationships (John and Molly, John and Cyrus, Molly and John, John and his ex-wife, Cyrus and Molly) actually run parallel with each other. When Molly first flirts with John, John replies, “Are you hitting on me? I’m Shrek.” And it seems like he’s got a point until you see Cyrus and Molly together. It’s at that point that you realize that John probably once looked just like Cyrus and that Cyrus is eventually going to grow up to be John. It’s hard not to wonder if Cyrus’s father looked like John or if Molly is attracted to John because he reminds her of her son. On the other hand, much as Cyrus is totally dependent on Molly, John is similarly dependent on his ex-wife (who, as played by Catherine Keener, looks strikingly similar to Marisa Tomei). In a nice touch, his ex-wife’s new husband seems to have the same opinion of John that John has of Cyrus.
The Duplass Brothers also get a quartet of excellent performances from the film’s leads. This is all the more exceptional considering that three of them are playing characters that are either underwritten (Tomei and Keener) or else totally inconsistent (Hill). The film really belongs to John C. Reilly who is such a sympathetic, likable presence as John that he convinces the audience to forgive a lot of the film’s unevenness. His best moments are to be found in the film’s opening party scene where he essentially acts like a total drunk jackass yet you still feel oddly sorry for him. He’s just such a nice guy.
As previously stated, Cyrus is an odd film, an uneasy mix of independent and mainstream sensibilities. Watching it, I found myself wondering if the Duplass Brothers were really sure what type of movie they wanted to make, if they wanted to emulate the cold, detached dry wit of the Coen Brothers or if they were indulging in a little Judd Apatow-style schmaltz. Both styles attempt to co-exist in Cyrus and the end result is a movie that seems to be struggling to establish its own identity. Still, Cyrus is worth seeing if just for the performances. As flawed as the film is, it confirms what Baghead indicated, that the Duplass Brothers as intriguing filmmakers to watch out for in the future.