Cyrus, the first film by writer-director brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) made with famous actors and a real budget under the auspices of a studio, is a lot like their previous pictures: It’s a shrewd, poignant drama disguised as a comedy.
John (John C. Reilly) is a sad-sack neurotic who still doesn’t understand his divorce from Jamie (Catherine Keener) seven years ago. Jamie is preparing to remarry, but John hasn’t so much as had a date in as long as he can remember. He is insecure and frets about everything, so when Jamie drags him to a party, and he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), a smart, attractive single mom who ends up going home with him, his life suddenly takes on meaning and direction.
Everything’s swell until John meets Molly’s 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who has an unusually close bond with his mom — he’ll walk into the bathroom to use the toilet while she’s taking a shower — and isn’t eager to share her. At first, John and Cyrus are uncomfortably polite and respectful toward each other, but the tension is palpable, and once John realizes that Cyrus is passive-aggressively out to sabotage his relationship, the war is on.
Cyrus sounds like the sort of comedy in which people end up dropping buckets of paint on each other’s heads, but the Duplasses treat the characters and their dilemma with utmost seriousness, a technique that gives the movie its uncomfortably comic vibe. Reilly proves to be quite an able romantic lead as a depressed man who just needs a little push to remind himself — and the world — what a great person he is. Tomei never allows Molly to seem oblivious or blind to her son’s manipulations: She calls him on his bad behavior whenever she needs to, but you also understand how a mother’s love for her only child would make her overlook certain things.
The big revelation in Cyrus is Hill, previously relegated to broad comedic roles (Superbad, Knocked Up, Funny People), who adds a shade of darkness and borderline dementia to Cyrus’ manipulative ways. The character is fascinating — a son who loves his mother too much because she meets all the needs (except sexual) a regular girlfriend normally would fulfill. Cyrus and his mom are best friends, play pals and roommates when they should be mother and son. Cyrus, which is occasionally hilarious but never clownish, keeps alive the Duplass brothers’ recurring theme: life is funny enough without someone’s having to write jokes for it.
Cast: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh.
Writers-directors: Jay and Mark Duplass.
Producers: Michael Costigan.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes.