“Cyrus” amuses and unnerves in equal measure. A comedy of discomfort that walks a wonderful line between reality-based emotional honesty and engaging humor, it demonstrates the good things that happen when quirky independent style combines with top-of-the-line acting skill.
That style belongs to the writing-directing brother team of Jay and Mark Duplass, stalwarts of the bargain-basement approach often called mumblecore. Their work in films such as “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead” involves free-floating camerawork, shooting in continuity and actors willing to improvise off of a written script, all with an eye to heightening the authenticity of their stories.
If you’re going to work that way, it helps considerably to have smart, experienced and adventurous actors, and in “Cyrus” the Duplass brothers have made that happen. With a cast that includes gifted veterans John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Catherine Keener as well as relative newcomer Jonah Hill, they have moved up from their shambling mumblecore roots and made something satisfying and substantial.
It also helps if the story that unfolds is as unsettling and unexpectedly adult as the one “Cyrus” relates. Told with great sensitivity to character and performance, the film reveals the serio-comic strains of an intense relationship between two men and a woman that plays like a classic romantic triangle, though in truth it is hardly that.
It is Reilly’s John, a freelance film editor, we meet first and in the most embarrasing way possible: He’s surprised in an intimate sexual moment by his ex-wife and best friend Jamie (Keener). She arrives at his house unannounced to tell him that after seven years of being divorced and single she is marrying the sane and sensible Tim ( Matt Walsh).
John has never recovered from that divorce, and Reilly, whose impeccable naturalness makes him one of our best actors, knows just how to play the man. John may come off as a hapless, borderline desperate guy whose life is in a definite tailspin, but Reilly, by bringing his personal weight to the equation, lets us know there is a core of value in John just waiting to be awakened and embraced.
Primed to cause that awakening, or so it seems at first, is Tomei’s irresistible and engaging Molly. The two meet cute at a party John had to be dragged to, and after some delicious flirtation — “I’m like Shrek,” he says, “Why are you talking to me?” — they end up in bed and on the way to being in love. There’s just one hitch. Her life is complicated, she says, and though John nods when he hears this, he has no idea just what that means.
The complication is named Cyrus, and as smartly played by Judd Apatow alumnus Hill in a blessedly nonraunchy role, he is Molly’s nearly 22-year-old son. When you throw in that Molly both raised and home-schooled Cyrus all by herself and that he still lives at home with no sign of leaving, you have a situation where mother and son are closer and more attached to each other than a whole lot of married couples.
So not only does John have to get used to Molly never wanting to close the door of her bedroom or Cyrus thinking nothing of going into the bathroom while his mother is taking a shower, he has to deal with Cyrus’ inscrutable personality.
A kind of overweight sphinx, Cyrus proves to be intriguingly difficult for John, and audiences, to get a handle on. A creature of blank, unreadable looks, Cyrus presents himself as honest and friendly, but, under the guise of “I was just messing around,” he almost at once starts to needle John. And it gets worse.
For unless we and John are imagining things, which is always possible, what we have here is a sub rosa battle to the death for Molly’s love and attention. Is Cyrus trying to break up the lovers? Is John over his head in a comic psychodrama not of his own choosing? Beautifully played by all three principals, who understand where the warmth, the laughs and the conflicts lie, “Cyrus” is a relationship drama that rings all the truer for being one we have not seen before. And will not soon forget.