Judge Clark Douglas has a younger brother named Cyrus. True story.
Seriously, stay off his mom.
"You know this is a really big day for him, right?"
Facts of the Case
John (John C. Reilly, Walk Hard) is a middle-aged man suffering from depression. Ever since his ex-wife (Catherine Keener, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) left him seven years ago, John has been struggling to find some measure of peace and happiness in life. However, the cloud over John's head begins to lift on the day he meets the lovely Molly (Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler): she's available, beautiful, friendly and kind. The two hit it off almost immediately, and John begins to feel joy for the first time in ages.
Then he meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill, Superbad).
Cyrus is Molly's 21-year-old son. He still lives at home with his mother and maintains an almost weirdly affectionate relationship with her. At first, Cyrus welcomes John and treats him warmly, but there's a certain frightening aggression behind the warmth. Soon, it becomes obvious that Cyrus is secretly working to subvert the relationship between John and Molly. John wants to retaliate, but fears that if he goes too far he'll mess things up terribly. Will a peace treaty of some sort be reached or is this peculiar three-way relationship headed for disaster?
If you've seen the trailers for Cyrus, you may be expecting an offbeat comedy about the competitive games of one-upmanship being played between a woman's son and boyfriend. To be sure, that element plays an important part in the film and there are certainly some uncomfortable laughs to be had, but Cyrus has a lot more up its sleeve. I was genuinely surprised by how dramatic long stretches of the film proved to be, and even more surprised by how much empathy it shows for these sad characters.
Though the basic premise is obviously different, in some ways the film reminded me of Adam McKay's Step Brothers (also starring Reilly), which focused on another domestic conflict between two grown men. The idea had some promise, but Step Brothers failed because the film's broad sense of comedy and mean-spirited nature caused the premise to grow tiresome rather quickly. While Cyrus certainly has a dark streak (there are moments that veer close to horror), it never fails to treat the characters like real human beings. John and Cyrus aren't goofy cartoons being held up for our mockery; they're people in pain clinging desperately to the one thing in life that makes them truly happy.
The film was directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, the patron saints of the "mumblecore" movement. Those who can't get excited about films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Baghead will be relieved to know that Cyrus doesn't really fit within the "mumblecore" aesthetic, but that genre's love of improvisation is certainly on display. Given that Cyrus is a film largely built on awkward, uncomfortable encounters, allowing the actors to improvise many of their scenes was a wise decision. Conversations hit a lot of strange beats and occasionally stumble into holes that the characters seem unable to work themselves out of. Reilly and Hill expertly wring a generous amount of cringe-inducing comedy out of these moments while simultaneously using them to better define their respective characters.
Reilly has played misery for giggles in many of his recent roles (Walk Hard, Talladega Nights, The Promotion), but his mournful scenes in Cyrus strike a more sincere note. We really want this poor guy to find happiness, and we feel as relived as he does when Molly shows him kindness. Reilly is fascinating during the scenes in which he's attempting to figure out how to deal with Cyrus; cautiously weighing the potential consequences of each move he makes. However, Hill is the real surprise of the cast. There's an unnerving psychosis behind his polite demeanor; something dark and savagely protective hiding in his eyes. Watch him during the scene in which Cyrus plays a piece of homemade electronica for John: Hill unearths comedy, suspense, and terror all at once without saying a word.
Tomei has the most challenging role in the film, as there are moments when the script (well, the "script") seems to treat Molly as an object of desire rather than as a person. In addition, some may raise an eyebrow at the fact that the gorgeous Tomei spends her days pining after the slovenly Reilly. However, the key to understanding her character is to watch her interaction with Cyrus. She's affectionate with him—too affectionate, many would argue. She wrestles with him, nibbles on his ear, allows him to walk in and out of the bathroom while she's showering—there's an uncomfortable level of intimacy here, though Tomei never suggests the slightest inkling of incestuous desire. She's just a loving mom who has allowed her son to become far more attached to her than most parents would. Cyrus, on the other hand, seems to secretly understand that he's crossing a certain boundary. You get the sense that he would take things further if he could do so without frightening his mom.
The film's cheap-yet-glossy digital photography looks solid in this 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, which offers pristine detail throughout. Though Cyrus is very spare in terms of design (far more interested in the faces of the characters than in the settings they inhabit), what's here looks as good as it can. Shadow delineation is impressive given the film's dimly-lit look and noise is minimal. The dialogue-driven audio track gets the job done without making much of an impression, as only a small handful of sequences (pretty much any scene involving loud music) actually give your speakers a workout. The supplemental package is primarily comprised of short and fairly insubstantial featurettes: "Q&A with Jay and Mark Duplass" (8 minutes), "Music Mash-Up with John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill" (3 minutes), "Behind the Scenes at SXSW with Jay and Mark Duplass" (3 minutes), "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with John C. Reilly" (5 minutes) and "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Jonah Hill" (3 minutes). You also get two deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The cinematography by Jas Shelton gets a little grating after a while. Taking a fly-on-the-wall, documentary-style approach, it uses the same cutesy trick (starting with a close-up, then zooming in a little more for an even tighter close-up) repeatedly to slightly irritating effect. I'm all in favor of close-ups, but this film overuses them and creates a movie that feels a bit too claustrophobic as a result.
More intensely dramatic than you might expect and more cringe-inducing than the average comedy, Cyrus is nonetheless a surprisingly affecting film that's well worth your time.
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Scales of Justice
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