A close look at ties that bind
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 25, 2010
Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass are best known, to those who know of them at all, as the writing-directing team that helped create the "mumblecore" genre, notable for its shambling, improvised narrative structures and youthful esprit de corps. With "Cyrus," the brothers' third feature, they show newfound ambition -- the movie features such name actors as Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei and John C. Reilly -- but also an adamant refusal to overreach. "Cyrus," a comedy designed to elicit reflection rather than outright laughs, keeps its focus uncomfortable and obsessive, just the way the movie's neurotic protagonists like it.
The movie announces its confrontational intentions from the get-go, when in the opening scene the film's hero, John (Reilly), is interrupted in an intimate moment by ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener), who has stopped by his house to let him know she's getting remarried. Later, at a party Jamie persuades him to attend, John meets Molly (Tomei), a knockout who thinks his penchant for drunken confessions and public urination is kind of cute. The future looks bright for John and Molly, until he discovers that she has been hiding something.
That would be the title character, Molly's 21-year-old son, played here by Hill in a creepy, funny, sad, weirdly unsettling performance. A sedentary mountain of an adolescently arrested man-child, Cyrus lives in a deeply enmeshed relationship with his devoted mother, who has home-schooled him and now encourages his techno-emo noodlings on a gaggle of synthesizer keyboards. When John first gets a load of Cyrus, his face reflects the very questions that surely come up for the audience: Is this kid a gifted, if troubled, genius? Or is there something darker at the core of his devotion to his mom?
Then again, John has his own boundary issues, as his still-close friendship with Jamie suggests. The Duplass brothers are perfectly happy to keep viewers off balance throughout "Cyrus," which they structure mostly as scenes of people telling each other how they feel, what they think and what they're observing.
Thanks to terrific performances, especially from Reilly as the audience's befuddled surrogate, these encounters don't play like pseudo-therapy but like vignettes from life, with its absurdities and ambiguities vexingly intact. And the Duplasses are as generous with their payoff as they are canny about building up suspense. Even at its most troubling, "Cyrus" is powered by a deep vein of humanism, one that offers hope to even the weirdest among us.
Contains profanity and sexual material.