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Creepy Comedy, Heartfelt Emotion Don't Fully Mix in Cyrus

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • 2010 16 Jul
Creepy Comedy, Heartfelt Emotion Don't Fully Mix in <i>Cyrus</i>

DVD Release Date:  December 14, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  June 18, 2010 (limited); July 16 (expands wider)
Rating:  R (for language and some sexual material)
Genre:  Comedy-Drama
Run Time:  91 min.
Director:  Jay and Mark Duplass
Cast:  John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener

Cyrus is a peculiar mixed bag.  To say it's a complete failure would be unfairly reductive, though it doesn't fully succeed either.  There's something very interesting going on here—both in moments and even on the whole—that can't be denied, yet neither can the sense that it fails to form into a complete whole.  I'll put it this way:  the actors seem to know exactly what they're doing, and succeed, but the directors don't.

Filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass want to have it both ways with this bizarre "love" triangle, mixing creepy comedy and heartfelt emotion.  Or, rather, not mixing at all.  The two tones float together like oil and water, always connected but never in union.

John and Molly (John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei) are two long-suffering divorcees who meet at a party and hit it off.  A fast romance is sparked, though lopsided.  Molly keeps details of her life private and her house off-limits.  John's curiosity provokes him to stalk Molly back to her home, and a subsequent act of snooping around leads to John meeting someone he never expected to:  Molly's son.  Adult son.  He's Cyrus (Jonah Hill), he's 21, and he's lived his whole life with his mother in self-imposed near-isolation.  He wants her all to himself.

To call this a "love" triangle isn't to say the Molly/Cyrus relationship is fully Oedipal (although the filmmakers have fun making John wonder on occasion).  Rather, Cyrus is dysfunctionally possessive of his relationship with his mom and sees John as a threat (as he would any man his mother dates).  Ever the loving/trusting (and guilt-ridden single) mom, Molly is blind to Cyrus's unhealthy attachment as well as the lengths he will go to destroy her relationship with John.

John, on the other hand, is all-too-aware of Cyrus's intentions as the film's narrative drive is their escalating face-off.  Knowing Molly cares deeply for both, neither wants to appear as sabotaging her relationship with the other.  It's in this dynamic that the Duplass brothers succeed, finding both dark comedy and tension in the dynamic, not only on a surface plot level but also at a deeper psychological one. 

Scenes are simultaneously funny and unsettling.  Reilly and Hill deftly shift from bitter (and dangerous) rivals when alone to a faux camaraderie the moment Molly enters—and even take it up a notch as each slyly attempts to humiliate the other in front of Molly without her fully realizing that's what they're doing.   At some point for John and Cyrus, it becomes less about winning Molly and more so the simple blood lust of wanting to eliminate the other.

There are morbid laughs to be had, as well as moments that are genuinely disturbing (Cyrus as pantless and knife-wielding being one).  Even if this sinister and occasionally foul brand of comedy is not to your liking, it's used to explore these characters as much as it is to create a bent-form of comedy, and the Duplass brothers strike the tone with eerie precision.  Until, that is, warm fuzzies start coming out of nowhere.

Imagine Scorsese and DeNiro trying to have you empathize with Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, or Anthony Hopkins getting you choked up by revealing the tender core of Hannibal Lecter.  It sounds silly because it would be, and so it is with Cyrus.  Granted he's not as far-gone as either of those psychotic icons, but he's a potential incarnation of them.  He's not one to evoke our compassion, especially since the only background provided is the lame cliché of a sheltered home-schooled upbringing.  He's not sympathetic, just pathetic.

Yet as the film progresses, sympathy is clearly the reaction the Duplass brothers are trying to induce.  It's reasonable to suspect that these quieter emotional scenes are meant to keep us guessing and off-balance (they do)—and maybe even read ironically—but by film's end it's evident they were sincere all along.  And it feels false.

Given the experimental indie-fare they've made so far (Baghead, The Puffy Chair), it's unlikely the Duplasses were trying to soften their edge.  It feels more like a case of bigger ambition (a psycho-comedy that's unsettling yet poignant) not quite reached.  In the right hands, playing contrasting tones off of each other to create a complex experience can be interesting and even revealing.  Here, it's just confusing.

I like not always knowing exactly how I should feel; I don't like realizing when that uncertainty is more by accident than design.  Here, I liked not being able to trust Cyrus—either the character specifically or the film as a whole.  What became unsatisfying was not being able to trust the directors telling the story.

John C. Reilly's brand of schlubby comedy and  Marisa Tomei's airy innocence are both well-played, especially within this darker premise, and the discomforting passive-aggression of Cyrus is one of Jonah Hill's better performances.  But in the attempt to elevate these contributions, the Duplass Brothers actually dilute them (and the endlessly shaky camera-work wears, too).  In this story about a psychotic, the tone should've been a little less bipolar.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Drinking alcohol on a few occasions; mostly at a party, also at a wedding.  Lead character is intoxicated at party.
  • Language/Profanity:  The "f" word is used many times, as are other profanities (not constant, but throughout) including three uses of the Lord's name in vain.  An obscene gesture is made.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  From behind, a man is seen masturbating on his bed.  A couple of occasions of pre-and-post sex (from heavy kissing, the beginning of disrobing, then lying in bed under the sheets together).  Frank discussions about sexual relationships.
  • Violence/Other:  Two characters get into a fist/wrestling fight.  Violence is verbally threatened.  Potential violence is suggested, with a knife.  Other:  a man urinates into a bush while at a house party (and a woman makes a remark about his genitals). 

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

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