Jay and Mark Duplass have been bumbling around in the mumblecore bowels of the indie world for nearly a decade now, taking off-beat premises and exploring the relationship dynamics that arise from them; no one, in fact, is better at extracting the honesty out of a spectacularly bizarre situation. Cyrus is more of the same — a genuine, heartfelt comedy that organically explores the relationship between a 22-year-old live-at-home layabout, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), and his mother’s new boyfriend, John (John C. Reilly). The wrinkle here is that Cyrus and his mother, Molly (Marisa Tomei), have a borderline Oedipal relationship. They’re best friends. They share the bathroom together. Molly still coddles Cyrus to sleep. And they wrestle together at the park. They are, indeed, like an old married couple minus the bickering and the occasional sex, though it seems, sometimes, that it’s not for lack of want, on Cyrus’ part.
John, divorced from his boss Jamie (Catherine Keener) seven years prior, is still hung up on her, lonely, and desperate when he drunkenly spills his guts at a party in a pathetic attempt to make a human connection. He inexplicably finds that connection when Molly is endeared by the honesty of his dejection. They end up in bed together that night, and John’s stalkerish courting over the next couple of days does nothing to drive Molly away, despite the fact that Molly looks like Marisa Tomei and John looks like John C. Reilly. The reason, John soon discovers, is that Molly’s life has been complicated by Cyrus’ complete emotional and physical dependence on her, and her willingness to bend to his neediness has only made matters worse. Cyrus, in turn, feels threatened by the new man in his mother’s life. He doesn’t want to share her affection.
“Are you fucking my mother?” Cyrus demands of John, the night they first meet. And so begins Cyrus’ passive-aggressive campaign of manipulation to drive John away, forcing a situation where Molly will have to decide between the two.
The trailers, the presence of John C. Reilly, and even the premise suggests an indie version of Reilly’s comedy, Step-Brothers, pitting two people forced together by circumstance against each other over in a battle over territorial rights. The dynamic here is different, however. The territory is not the lone bedroom; it’s the affection of Molly. It’s psychological rather than physical. No one sticks their balls on a drum set in Cyrus; it’s smarter and more conniving than that. When John and Molly are about to make love, for instance, Cyrus fakes a panic attack, forcing Molly to attend to his needs over those of John.
This is Jay and Mark Duplass’ first studio comedy, but aside the talent they’ve amassed, it’s hardly recognizable as a studio picture. That’s to its credit, of course. It’s the best performance that Jonah Hill has ever given, and maybe the funniest, though there’s not one joke in Cyrus. John C. Reilly’s desperation is a little too painful and awkward to watch in the beginning, but it ultimately works — Molly feeds off that dependence and it’s the only logical explanation for how she’s end up with him, given her relationship with Cyrus. Marisa Tomei, aged but as gorgeous as ever, is magnificent, holding the dynamics of both relationships together, perfectly toeing the line between honest affection and creepiness. It pushes up against the line, but it never really crosses it. It’s dysfunction rather than deviancy.
Cyrus is the perfect indie execution of a studio high-concept. I was troubled by that concept initially; the Duplasses find the honesty in the relationship triangle, but I had some difficulties with the honesty of the setup: What were the Duplass Brothers trying to say about the over-affection between mothers and their sons? Does a dynamic like the one between Molly and Cyrus really exist in the world, outside of hillbilly trailer homes or that episode of “The X-Files”?
But that’s not the dynamic the Duplasses were really trying to explore, it’s just the studio hook. The more honest dynamic is one that so many of us have faced: step-fathers honing in on the existing bond between a single-mother and her children. In that context, Cyrus feels genuine. His behavior is typical of those relationships; it’s just that the son is usually 11 instead of 22. But it is a delicate situation for any new partner, who has to win the affection of the mom without alienating the son, an alienation that could ultimately doom the relationship. In the end, that premise backs the Duplass Brothers into a corner I never thought they could extract themselves from, but they eventually drive it toward the most honest ending for which you could possibly hope.
I’d love to see this movie succeed. In a Hollywood system where it seems like every successful director has an angle, it’d be truly great to see the Duplasses’ honest sensibility gimmick work. But, I’m not going to hold my breath.
This review was originally published in March during SXSW. The movie expands today into several major cities.