‘Cyrus’: Hooray for un-Hollywood

June 17, 2010

We’ve all seen the movie that “Cyrus” could have been: the mildly wild story of a grown son doing what he can to secretly sabotage the romance between his mom and her newest beau.


It’s usually told from the vantage point of the suitor (in this case, John C. Reilly), who meets the perfect woman (Marisa Tomei). They hit it off, start to date, wind up in the sack — and then he discovers her only flaw: her clingy son.


In the Hollywood version, much contrived hilarity ensues, involving one embarrassing situation after another for the suitor, all of them manipulated by the Eddie Haskell-ish son. And nothing the suitor can do will open the mother’s eyes to the fact that her beloved offspring is, in fact, a demon seed. Which means that, eventually, we have to conclude that this “perfect” woman is, in fact, willfully stupid.


Something very different happens in “Cyrus,” the first semi-mainstream movie by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. Oh, Cyrus, the son played with wonderfully calm malevolence by versatile Jonah Hill, does his best to create situations that embarrass John, his mom’s new boyfriend. But this psychologically adroit bit of squirm comedy never escalates to the broad, slapsticky level – or the broad, gross-out level – that the Hollywood version would.


Rather, the Duplass brothers — pioneers of a certain DIY school of filmmaking — find much humor in the real emotions of the situation. And, in doing so, they find something more real and funnier than if they were trying to contrive the comedy from more obvious elements.


As noted, the set-up is familiar: John is a divorced lonely guy, whose ex-wife (Catherine Keener) announces that she’s remarrying and urges him to find someone new. John feels helpless to do so, but goes to a party at her urging, where she promises there will be many attractive and available women.


At the party, it’s about what he expected: lots of interesting women, but none who seem interested in him. And then he meets Molly (Tomei), whose opening salvo, when she catches him urinating in the backyard, is “Nice penis.” By the end of the night, they’re in bed – and by the end of the week, they’re dating.


One problem: She always comes to his house and never invites him to hers. When he follows her home one late night, he discovers why: her son, Cyrus, a would-be new-agey musician, whose music sounds like the bastard child of Yanni and Daft Punk.


Cyrus isn’t overtly hostile (though he utters what may become the summer’s obscene catch-phrase, at dinner: “Don’t fuck my mom”) – but he is definitely hostile. He has no interest in seeing his comfortable existence with his mother – “She’s my best friend” – upset by the intrusion of a new alpha male. And he tells John as much, though he also says he’ll deny it if John tries to rat him out to Molly.


Cyrus devotes himself to becoming the ultimate cock-blocker, intruding on John and Molly’s time together at every opportunity, fabricating reports of anxiety/panic attacks to command Molly’s attention and generally beaming bad vibes in John’s direction.


What distinguishes “Cyrus” is that John is a realist, not a romantic. He understands how life works, what he’s willing to do to keep things moving smoothly and when it’s time to cut his losses. Again, a departure from Hollywood, which would focus on John’s desperation and neediness – or Cyrus’ or both – and turn that into a source of humiliation comedy.


Reilly has played doofuses and boors, but his performance as John is warm, open and smart – and believable. Hill has an unnerving, almost bug-eyed gaze and an eerie calm as the title character; he’s a genuinely funny actor with great control and an ability to needle that is uncanny. Tomei is delightfully inscrutable at times, her sleepy eyes masking what might either be warm affection or wary uncertainty, enough to keep John (and Cyrus) off-balance.


“Cyrus” is a sneakily funny film, one with more emotional truth and wisdom than you’d expect, given the set-up. It’s a deceptively perceptive curveball that goes right through the strike zone.


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