Film Review: Cyrus

A man battles with his girlfriend's son in this realistic, understated comedy filled with the awkwardness of real life.

Cyrus takes the role of “the other man” in a romantic comedy and casts it with a taboo rival—the woman’s son. Instead of defusing the awkwardness with a throwaway joke about incest or Freud, writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass keep the love triangle in an amusingly weird Bermuda position for the entire film, a tonal accomplishment that makes this indie comedy a delightfully offbeat treat.

We meet John (John C. Reilly) when his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) walks in on him in a compromising position in his disheveled bachelor rental. She is remarrying, and goads him into attending a party, promising he can find a new partner himself. After a series of painful strikeouts with the ladies, he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) as he drunkenly relieves his bladder in the backyard. This woman seems like the kind of person who can accept him for who he is.

John has no problem returning the affection, and he pursues Molly with the kind of earnestness rarely seen in romantic comedies. The scene of cleaning the apartment and cooking a gourmet dinner is something of a genre staple, but the Duplass brothers’ approach has the realistic texture that comes from handheld cameras and low budgets. They also like to desynchronize the dialogue in their montages, giving us a chopped-up series of images against one cohesive conversation. Unlike the useless distraction of their frequent zooms, the refreshing technique is uniquely evocative, like one’s own memory of a single conversation recalled against the landscape of the entire night.

Then John meets Molly’s son, twenty-something Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a GED graduate and musician who lives at home. Mother and son have a close relationship that’s just slightly off. As part of their daily routine, they take pictures and breakfast in the park—and also like to wrestle playfully. While John waits in the bedroom as Molly showers, Cyrus walks right in. The Duplass brothers have an eye for comedic reveals, and employ them to great effect to illustrate the difference between their lead character’s expectations of a situation and the reality. They also like to maintain the misconception a bit longer than most: a couple of times, they hold Cyrus menacingly in shadows before revealing a benign reason for his presence.

John suspects that Cyrus is trying to sabotage his relationship, but he’s unwilling to go to Molly, since what mother would side with her new boyfriend over her one and only son? Instead, the two men act cordial towards each other in front of Molly, while fighting behind closed doors. A missing pair of shoes, a banal and petty disruption, drives their disagreement. While it’s clear that Cyrus is the problematic one, both characters are sympathetic and composed of a mixture of redeeming and lame qualities. After all, Cyrus stole John’s shoes, an act that’s both immature and more devious in posture than reality.

Defying the usual genre conventions, Cyrus depicts a relationship, and an obstacle to romance, that’s not glamorous or gimmicky. Instead of going over the top with outrageous gags that fall flat, the Duplass brothers root the comedy in realism, with just a slight flourish of clever, catchy dialogue. While their “mumblecore” movies (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) were popular among young, festival-going audiences, Cyrus will appeal to a wider range of viewers. Rambling camera movements are mostly kept in check, and the unpolished style lends a feeling of intimacy with the actors, almost as if you are seeing a rough draft of their work. Reilly, Tomei, Hill and Keener all turn in attuned, naturalistic performances, and seeing Hill play a less likeable character is a welcome departure from his persona in the current Get Him to the Greek. With its understated humor and believable premise, Cyrus bodes well for the future of romantic comedies.