Helicoptering parents and stay-at-home adult children have been popular issues of late, and at first, the Duplass Brothers' third feature (and their first made with a studio) seems poised to exploit them. But the world of Cyrus is as solipsistic as its characters and doesn't offer much insight into the Oedipus complex or the current state of the twentysomething generation. The good news is, such topicality doesn't get in the way of the special pleasures of this honest, subtle, unapologetically self-involved gimcrack.
Cyrus | Written and Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass | with John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener, and Matt Walsh | Fox Searchlight Pictures | 92 minutes
INTERVIEW:Jay and Mark Duplass, by Peter Keough.
In keeping with a motif initiated in the Duplass's previous film, Baghead
begins with a scene of interrupted masturbation. The handheld camera follows Jamie (Catherine Keener) as she intrudes on her ex-husband, John (played with bearish resilience by John C. Reilly), who's indulging himself in an onanistic arrangement of sad, eccentric complexity.
Jamie has bad news: she's going to get married to her current beau, Tim (Matt Walsh). Although John and Jamie broke up seven years ago, John has not adjusted well, and Jamie fears that the new development could be devastating. So she and Tim drag John to a party in the hope that he'll break out of his funk. After a unique meet-cute situation involving vodka, public urination, and the Human League's "Don't You Want Me," John takes Molly (Marisa Tomei) home for the night.
This is a relationship in which the old rule of not going to bed with someone with more problems than yourself does not readily apply. First of all, the two have an inexplicable but immediate and undeniable affinity. Second, it would be difficult to determine which one is more screwed up. You'd think John's case would be hard to top, but Molly has developed a suffocatingly co-dependent relationship with her son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill, showing depth in his enigmatic restraint), a 20-year-old new-age musician who's Molly's spouse in all but conjugal relations.
At first, John tries to accept Cyrus with good-natured equanimity, and Cyrus gives the appearance of being fine with this invasion of his creepy ménage. But Cyrus is a sly one — insidiously passive-aggressive and possibly suffering from borderline personality disorder — and John gets suspicious. So he switches tactics, and though both try to keep their enmity a secret from the willfully ignorant Molly, a covert, ruthless war begins.
Had this started out as a European film with subtitles, it probably would have been remade by Touchstone into a broad, raunchy, sentimental, Apatow-like comedy — probably also starring Jonah Hill. But the Duplass Brothers got there first, and their version is elliptical, nuanced, and non-judgmental, with hilariously genuine dialogue and exquisite performances, all of it observed with the probing eye of a Frederick Wiseman documentary.
Therein lies a quibble. In their previous two no-budget features, Jay and Mark operated the camera and boom, and the result had an authentic, rough-hewn quality. Here, a studio is springing for the costs, and the bobbly photography seems more affected than naturalistic. Would it have hurt to invest in a tripod or even a steadicam? Maybe they were afraid of looking as if they'd been corrupted by Hollywood. To judge from Cyrus, however, it's Hollywood that should worry about being corrupted by them.