At the beginning of Mark and Jay Duplass' new film Cyrus, homely, single John (John C. Reilly) is thunderstruck by the odd look he gets from Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party. He's understandably amazed that this middle-aged knockout is paying attention to him. But moviegoers will also detect a different note in Molly's expression that John is slow to recognize. Is it tenderness? Amusement? Pity?
Later, when John is introduced to Molly's 21-year old son (Jonah Hill), the extra ingredient in Molly's gaze becomes clear. She's looking at both of these boys with a loving but predominantly maternal eye. And therein lies the chief conflict in this awkward comic psychodrama, which is both rewarding and flawed in different, better ways than most films in theaters.
As Cyrus, Hill gives his best performance — which, given his previous work, might sound like faint praise. But Hill's girth, intelligence, anger, and vulnerability all contribute to the richest characterization he's likely to get. His initial opacity and unblinking calm mark him as immediately untrustworthy, and he seldom enters a scene; he's just suddenly there, like Michael Myers in Halloween. John soon discovers that Cyrus' barbed politeness, calculated rudeness, and feigned psychological ailments are all part of an impressive arsenal of manipulative tricks.
But John is no innocent: His battle with Cyrus for Molly's affections is echoed in John's interactions with his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener). Seven years after their divorce, John is still calling her in the middle of the night to express his bewilderment at Cyrus' conniving ways, much to the irritation of her fiancé Tim (Matt Walsh). John and Cyrus are thus two overly mothered boys who recall Tyler Durden's Fight Club remarks about a generation of weak men who have been raised primarily by women. It's a nice joke that when these characters finally do come to blows, they flail like actresses in a soap-opera catfight.
Unfortunately, Cyrus' black-comic premise is frequently undermined by its ugly visual scheme. Although this is their third film, the Duplass brothers still have a shoddy command of light, shadow, and space. They rely too much on dim lighting, hand-held camera work, and an obvious, sudden zoom that overemphasizes details in several scenes. And watching Hill and Reilly battle for Tomei's affections is a lot like watching a fight between two Dick Tracy villains. It's unthinkable that any major studio would dare to make a film with two equally unattractive female leads.
In their rhythm and pacing, the film's best scenes avoid this low-fi indie ugliness and find some deeper, more difficult emotional moments. In one scene, Molly and Cyrus talk about some of the uncomfortable aspects of their relationship using the logy, slow speech patterns of two people emerging from comas. But this sensitive, hard-earned moment doesn't linger long enough. For all its formal slovenliness, the film's sudden, tidy resolution feels like a cheat. The literal shoulder-shrug of an ending wraps up an otherwise engaging story too neatly and quickly.
Opening Friday, July 9th