Friday, January 29, 2021

Cyrus (2010)

USA, 91 minutes
Directors/writers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Photography: Jas Shelton
Music: Michael Andrews
Editor: Jay Deuby
Cast: Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh

People who like to cringe should not miss this Sundance hit by codirectors and cowriters Jay and Mark Duplass. The ever-escalating intent of Cyrus is quite clearly to make us uncomfortable about the needs of human beings and laugh at their pathologies. The overall effect is so unclassifiable that I had to double-check IMDb's genre designations—"comedy, drama, romance," in that order (maybe it's alphabetical?)—to get my bearings and gauge whether it was more appropriate to horse-laugh or feel heartened by human resilience. To tell you the truth, I'm still not 100% sure on the point. But the cast and their performances are so good I'm willing to overlook any potential priority of the Duplass brothers solely to make us squirm.

The brilliant hangdog John C. Reilly is John, a freelance editor who has been divorced for seven years from Jamie (Catherine Keener). It's set in Los Angeles where everyone is rolling with the gig economy. John and Jamie are still close friends with bad boundaries and implicit privileges to call or drop in unexpectedly at any hour, even barging in on work settings. At the beginning of the picture Jamie announces to John that she is engaged, which is not entirely a surprise to him, though depressing. In an attempt to cheer John up and get him back out there on the dating scene, Jamie insists he come to a party with them that weekend. At the party John burns through a few painful attempts at picking up women before launching into a catastrophic party-up dance scene to the Human League's "Don't You Want Me"—so awkward you might be tempted to escape the movie then and there.

But hang in. John's painful display of ludicrous confidence wins over Molly (Marisa Tomei), who just previously had caught him outside in the bushes peeing and made a few friendly jokes with him about it. At the living room dancefloor, she joins in with him on the Human League and thereby gets everyone at the party on their feet dancing too. The connection between John and Molly is profound and mutually felt. They have sex that night and are instantly an item, and an endearing one, but Molly seems to have some secrets. She doesn't invite him to her place, and always leaves early instead of sleeping over. This being the movies, John decides the best course is to surreptitiously follow her and then attempt to skulk around investigating the home she entered.

That's when we meet Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who is Molly's 21-year-old son. Cyrus came out in the period when Hill was reaching greater prominence and working a lot. I think I took him for granted when I first saw Cyrus when it was new. This time around it's easier to see how he is the center of gravity in this whole thing. His manner is strange and destabilizing, boyish yet mature, blithely ignoring even as he displays all the creepy oedipal elements of his relationship with his mother. He tells John his father is out of the picture (as much as we ever get) and that Molly—he calls her Molly—raised and home-schooled him on her own. Now he's attempting to make it composing music on a bank of synthesizers. When he plays a sample for John it sounds a bit like Skrillex.

Things gets stranger. The first night John stays over with Molly, Cyrus goes into the bathroom off her bedroom where she is showering. He comes out after several minutes, followed by Molly still dripping from the shower and wrapped only in a towel. When John and Molly retire that night, John shuts the bedroom door but that is against the house rules. Molly and Cyrus have no closed doors. In the morning, John's shoes have disappeared. Is Cyrus just a naïve innocent or perhaps even developmentally challenged in some way? It appears not—he's quite intelligent and socially adept, and later in the picture his intentions become clear. He is out to deliberately undermine their relationship, the first his mother has had since his father. It's full-on oedipal after all. Molly, for her part, frets seemingly like any mother, oblivious to how inappropriate her relationship is with Cyrus. Here is where Tomei is great—she somehow makes this willful self-blindness believable, even comic.

Hill is great too, the best of it—the image of movie charisma, uncanny in his stillness and presence. You can't take your eyes off him, partly also because his character is written so well. But Hill is practically matched by Reilly, who is always pretty good in the flattened old way of classic character actors. Here he has much more going on, and puts it across with a certain stillness of his own as John assesses the developing situation. His commitment to Molly never wavers, which only becomes more and more remarkable. I would have left the situation long before and I've kind of had a crush on Tomei since My Cousin Vinny.

Cyrus ends like a romantic comedy on an upbeat note, which is why I was at IMDb checking the profile. It often plays like a creepshow. For example, John wakes one night to find Molly gone and gets up to look for her. Cyrus is up, wearing only an oversize t-shirt and casually holding a large knife at his side. "Come here," he says to John. It's not the prelude to mayhem and gore we think it might be, but the man-to-man that follows is anything but reassuring about human norms. There is a distinct possibility that things are going to end very badly, although in the end they simply don't, and the happy, quirky, satisfying ending is as much a relief as anything.

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