Cyrus is about as close as Hollywood has come to a comic masterpiece in 2010. It should come as no surprise, really, that the film comes from the uniquely indie minds of filmmaking siblings Jay and Mark Duplass, whose mumblecore creations The Puffy Chair and Baghead were both festival and arthouse faves.
Cyrus is not a mumblecore film, however, the Duplass's have retained their decidedly indie flair and put it to excellent use in the film with a cast that itself is the perfect blend of Hollywood with the indie spirit.
John (John C. Reilly) appears to be a freelance editor who still works alongside his ex-wife and best friend, Jamie (Catherine Keener), who divorced him seven years earlier but who announces in the film's opening scene that she's getting married.
John isn't exactly a healthy man, his home a chaotic mess and his social life virtually non-existent. When Jamie and her soon-to-be hubby (Matt Walsh) drag him out to a party, he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), an out of his league hottie who nonetheless seems to take a liking to him despite even his own misgivings. Everything is wonderful until Molly utters the words "My life is complicated."
Enter Cyrus (Jonah Hill), her 21-year-old son with seriously unresolved mommy issues and who doesn't appear to play well with others.
The movie that follows is a virtual actor's smorgasbord of nuance, discipline, improvisation and originality in which Cyrus feels constantly off-kilter, consistently on the edge and as if at any given moment the film is going to explode into over-the-top comedy fireworks.
Yet, it never does.
The true master stroke of Cyrus may very well be that the Duplass's don't play these characters for laughs and the actors themselves follow suit by creating vividly realized, richly developed characters for whom the comedy is birthed out of the uncomfortable naturalness of the situation rather than any sense of "going for laughs."
There are times in Cyrus, especially with Reilly's John, where you sit there saying to yourself "I know what's going to happen next" and, for the most part, you will be wrong.
Cyrus never becomes an outrageous comedy, but the film is far too humorous to be considered an actual drama. In fact, placing Cyrus into any genre will prove to be difficult. Cyrus is a cinematic beast all its own.
Reilly is marvelous as John, embodying the seemingly hapless loser with a humanity and subtle strength that makes you both ache for him as he begins to connect with Molly, wonder when the whole relationship will collapse under the weight of his cracked self-esteem and, yet, be surprisingly confident that this man will figure out a way to deal with a potentially psychotic young man who has no desire at all to share his mother. In lesser hands, John would have become a comic caricature of the loser whose strength would "suddenly" be found in a climactic scene. However, Reilly wisely portrays the many layers of a man who can simultaneously refer to himself as "Shrek" while summoning strength even he may have not realized he had. This is easily Reilly's most satisfying performance in quite some time, a sort of turning away from the broad, landscaping humor of his recent performances as part of the Will Ferrell entourage.
Despite being assigned the unenviable task of portraying an under-developed character, Catherine Keener manages to find layers, as well, as John's ex-wife but remaining best friend. While Jamie seemingly exists as a sort of filter for John, Keener plays her with an almost unnerving sense of normalcy that never feels quite right. Her fiancee, played by Matt Walsh, seems to give her a foundation she longs for despite her own behavior that often mirrors that of John. She is the "normal" one in the friendship, yet she's off-balance just enough that we believe that John and Jamie were once a couple.
Marisa Tomei, who has always been an under-appreciated actress despite an Oscar win and two additional nominations, is wonderfully tender, vulnerable, loopy and, again, off-kilter as Molly. Molly's relationship with her son could have been played for laughs, even given its ever so slightly (okay, not so slightly) incestuous undertones. Yet, Cyrus is not a sex comedy and to have gone that direction would have been unnatural and lazy. Instead, Tomei plays Molly as a sort of wounded soldier who reared her son alone, homeschooled him and who, yes, likely developed an unhealthy bond with potentially disastrous consequences. Somehow, Tomei turns it all into a surprisingly sympathetic and appealing performance that is mesmerizing to watch.
Despite this trio of outstanding performances, the revelatory performance in Cyrus belongs to Apatow alum Jonah Hill. On a certain level, Hill's Cyrus plays a lot like Seth Rogen's not quite right security guard in Observe and Report, Rogen's attempt to forge a dramatic path and to stretch his acting a bit. While Rogen's performance was rather hit-and-miss, Jonah Hill hits it out of the ballpark with a performance that quietly lampoons his good guy persona with a darker, edgier and occasionally rather frightening persona of a son who will do just about anything he has to do to stay the center of his mother's attention. While it's doubtful Hill will attract much awards attention beyond a potential Independent Spirit nomination, his turn here indicates Hill has a much wider range than anyone would have expected.
Production quality for Cyrus maintains a loyalty to the Duplass's microcinema background with camera work by Jas Shelton that is fluid, occasionally a touch out of focus and that feels remarkably natural and less edited than one is used to seeing from a Hollywood flick. Annie Spitz's production design is an appropriate blend of comfort and chaos, while the original music by Michael Andrews complements the film's emotional peaks and valleys quite nicely.
While Cyrus is blessed with a familiar cast, there's really nobody here who's likely to push the film into becoming a mainstream success. While all four of our main players have certain experienced box-office success, they've also all four experienced box-office bombs as headliners with the exception of Hill, whose only other headlining gig has been the recently released Get Him to the Greek.
It's doubtful, though, that wide release is even a vision for Cyrus, a film that clearly valued artistic integrity and freedom more than appealing to the masses and compromise. Bold, unnerving, unflinching and unique are seldom words associated with box-office smashes, but strong word of mouth should ensure a solid arthouse run for this Sundance Film Festival darling.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic