A man, a woman, her son. It’s a situation of jealous hostility explored many times, but never more honestly, more painfully, or with bigger laughs than in Jay and Mark Duplass CYRUS. Made with an improvisational style that perfectly evokes the awkward immediacy of three people working through a new relationship that changes all their lives, it is designed to cause as many cringes in the audience as belly laughs. But, and this is the real genius as work here, it’s executed in such assured, perceptive fashion as to render them both equally compelling. And entertaining. Yes. Entertaining.
When John (John C. Reilly) meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party, his formerly gloomy life of pining for his ex-wife and other man’s bride-to-be, Jamie (Catherine Keener) blooms into something bright and joyful. The one-night stand turns serious, thanks to John’s stalking of Molly when she refuses to spend the night at his place. It’s not Molly he runs into there, though, but rather the eponymous Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s 21-year-old son with whom she shares a relationship that is not just close, but, so close that it doesn’t readily adapt itself to a third party. While John sees Molly as his last chance for happiness, Cyrus sees John as stealing the only happiness in life he will ever have. After dealing with direct questions about his relationship with Molly, absorbing a no-closed-door policy at Molly’s house, and giving the young man the benefit of the doubt about night terrors misinformation masquerading as advice, and disappearing shoes, John ditches pretense and politeness as he sets about staking his claim to Molly. And so does Cyrus, sparking mind games and open warfare waged beneath Molly’s radar, but with serious intent that may or may not stop at physical violence.
Staying strictly within the realm of real life as it is lived by some of its more eccentric participants, it is the small details of that life on which the actors thrive, expanding on the oddities without abandoning the underlying emotional stakes. John’s attempts to connect at that fateful party, a blend of unwillingness and desperation fueled by a cocktail made of an energy drink and vodka, are given an unflinching scrutiny that make his neediness off-putting but sweet, and the inevitable rebuffs before Molly takes a shine to him both cruel and reasonable. It sets up his need to cling so fiercely to Molly, a beautiful, warm, and passionate woman he dubs a sex angel, but one who leaves their bed to comfort Jonah through a nightmare, who patiently picks the peppers off her adult son’s plate while he whines about it, and who can’t believe that there could be anyone on the planet who doesnt love Cyrus as much as she does. Cyrus, with his blank stare that masks a high and highly malevolent intelligence, jokes about his odd sense of humor that is one of his more potent stealth weapons, and proves to be just as needy as John, a state of affairs that makes their conflict even more treacherous.
The Duplass Brothers and their actors never go for the easy or the simple. They also have a great deal of respect for all these characters, if not always for their points of view. It’s an approach that allows CYRUS to raise many intriguing questions about why some relationships are considered healthy, why others aren’t, and where or if a firm line should be drawn within people’s seemingly infinite abilities to create variations. The way Molly nurtures Cyrus would be laudable if he were still 10, is a little creepy with him of drinking age, but nonetheless fills them both a state of joy. That Jamie is still fretting over John seven years after walking out on him would be noble, if it weren’t irritating her fiancé quite so much, though it does offer Matt Walsh, in a brief, but delightfully performance of subdued snarkiness turning one-line commentaries mumbled in passing and falling on deaf ears into volumes of suppressed rage. That John wants to show Cyrus what it feels like to be knocked unconscious is wrong, mostly, but as a boundary defining tool for a young man who hasn’t been taught any, there is room for understanding. That Reilly with his impishly pudgy face can be simultaneously cuddly, desperate, and terrifying at that moment, and some of all during the course of the film, is a testament to that actor’s understanding of the role, and his ability to project otherwise mutually exclusive personas in a context that cries out for it. He’s also brave enough to make hash of badly timed karaoke. Hill is no less accomplished, making Cyrus dangerous and vulnerable in his boring plaid shirts and placid exterior. Even when he’s not holding a large knife for the relatively benign act of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
CYRUS embraces the complexity of relationships involving more than two people as it takes on the unexamined life and the tricky task of working out the difference between growth and stagnation. Disturbing, heartening, and with a cautionary vibe and a compassionate heart, this is a film designed to fuel debate and to provide the blessed release of a good laugh when things hit too close to home.