Monday, November 29, 2010

Cyrus Movie Review

Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei have an especially close mother-son bond.

Cyrus is a movie about a war of nerves between two emotionally stunted men. John C. Reilly plays John, a man stilled scarred by a divorce seven years ago, and his foil is Cyrus (Jonah Hill), the son of a woman he thinks he may have a future with. The film is directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, who have a couple of minor features and short films to their credit, but finally struck some luck by getting serious financial backing from Scott Free Productions, the production company owned by Tony and Ridley Scott.

Reilly has almost made an entire career out of playing big lovable lugs who wear their emotional insecurities on their sleeve. John, the character, bears a number of similarities to Reilly’s character in Magnolia, also a divorced man perhaps a little too open with his feelings and looking for the right woman.


John is a broken man from the start when his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) catches him in a private moment’s compromising position and then announces her engagement. Jamie is the prototypical supportive ex-wife who has been encouraging him to get out and meet women for years. Now she all but forces him to join her and Tim (her fiancĂ©) at a party where there will be lots of “cool people.”

So he goes, and he drinks, and he talks to some women using his abysmally poor social skills and so he drinks some more. Reilly makes a real meal of playing drunk in a way only he can accomplish. He does it so well it looks absolutely real while also being comical. He’s an actor who understands Alan Alda in Hannah and Her Sisters: “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it isn’t.” Imagine Adam Sandler in this scene. He would push it so far over the top it would go from comically serious to absurd in a matter of seconds.

It his drunken antics that lead him to meet Molly (Marisa Tomei), who finds the perfect note to deflate the embarrassing moment she catches him in. They seem to be hitting it off when his ear catches the 80’s synth-pop sounds of The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby” and he goes running off to crank up the volume, sing along at full volume and dance in the living room. The rest of the party think he’s crazy until Molly joins him on the second verse. Soon the whole room is shaking it in one of the few unfortunately artificial moments in the film.

John and Molly seem to be diving head first into a serious thing, but she’s harboring a minor secret which John discovers after following her home one night – she’s got a 21-year old son. However, he sells himself as the most polite and sympathetic young man you’ll ever meet. The conversation they have upon meeting feels like it’s a bit improvised, but it’s glaringly obvious that Hill doesn’t have the acting chops to match Reilly beat for beat. Cyrus invites John into the house even though Molly isn’t home and even demos the music that he hopes will be his future career. Cyrus writes electronic dance music with his seven synthesizers and a computer.

Everything appears to be going well, although John discovers when he stays overnight in their house that Molly and Cyrus have an unusually close relationship. The first clue is the photo of a four or five-year old Cyrus breastfeeding. Then Cyrus casually goes into the bathroom while his mom is having a shower. Then the bedroom doors are left open. John is more accepting of these oddities than most men would be – a testament to his moral character.

It’s not long, however, before both we and John begin to wonder if Cyrus’s demeanor isn’t a bit of a put-on. Is he being manipulative when he suddenly announces he’s moving into a place of his own to give them their space for their relationship to “blossom?” You understand the difficult position John is in. How can he broach the subject with Molly, who will come to a full-throated defense of her son?

Eventually John and Cyrus do have their confrontation and the gloves come off. But the fact that neither one wants to clue Molly in to their mutual animosity allows this simmering battle to become the great comic centerpiece of the movie. This is where the Duplasses plotting is at its best. They keep this sequence restrained rather than going for broke and declaring all out war. The screenplay allows John and Cyrus to hold the tension over an extended period of time as they each try to deal very sensitive blows to the other.

Ultimately you know it has to come to a head before the end, but I won’t ruin how it comes about. Suffice it to say it’s handled delicately and naturally. Here is finally a movie where characters say to each other what real people might say. This stands in contrast to the majority of films that leave characters with their mouths shut so that they can’t disrupt the necessary form of conflict followed a downbeat, then an upswing to resolution.

As much as I enjoyed wondering where this film was going to take me, mainly the result of Hill’s Cyrus being an unpredictable madman, I’m not sure I really buy the character one-hundred percent. There’s something about him that doesn’t quite ring true, like it’s a clever design serving an end. If that’s the worst thing I can say about the film, then it’s probably worth watching. But maybe his name shouldn’t also be the title of the film in that case.

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