SXSW Review: Cyrus

By  · Published on March 28th, 2010

I’ve gotten a bit tired of John C. Reilly doing so many comedies recently. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a damn funny man who elevates everything he’s in, but I’ve been increasingly afraid that a man with as strong of dramatic chops as he will continually fall into typecasting through the short-term memory of Hollywood. Enter Cyrus, the first high-profile, star-studded effort by those kooky mumblecore kids Jay and Mark Duplass (Why do so many brothers make movies together? I could never see myself making a movie with my brother. Anyway…), a film that reasserts Reilly’s range not as a comic or dramatic actor, but as an actor, and a film which proves that, when given the right material by the right people who can handle and respect his vast set of skills, an underutilized talent stuck in a genre can continue to mine new territory of that exact position, breaking the limitations of what was previously perceived to be a limited situation.

In other words, Cyrus is not only seriously funny but is also a seriously good movie. It explores the drama within comedy, dealing with raw emotions without changing tone, never coming across as fake or forced. Drama, comedy, and tragedy are all one in the same here, which makes Cyrus simultaneously sidesplittingly funny, dramatically poignant, and emotionally touching. This is good character-based comedy, a satisfying movie experience all around, the type we incur all too rarely.

John (Reilly) is a socially awkward freelance editor who still hasn’t gotten over breaking up with his wife (Catherine Keener) seven years after the fact. The probable source for the continued conflict is that the two remain far too close for a couple that has broken up, each sharing a bit too much about their lives with each other. John meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), who, in the tradition of Marisa Tomei, is cute as a fucking button. They hit it off immediately and fall for each other quickly, maybe too quickly as she forgets to tell John that she lives with her 22-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill). This is a minor hiccup but not a problem for John until he realizes Cyrus has major codependency issues that Molly is at least partly responsible for. As it becomes evident that Cyrus’s mission is to manipulate, torture, and eventually run John out of his mother’s life (their dynamic believably and slowly escalates from the subtle to the bizarre to the eruption of overt conflict), it becomes John’s mission to mess with Cyrus right back and reveal the adult-child’s problems to her mother without messing up the relationship.

What makes the film work so well, of course, is the chemistry and limitless comic capabilities of John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. When watching the film, you get a sense that you could watch these two pro improv comics go at it all day. But unlike Reilly’s recent manchild fights with the unfortunately tired act of Will Ferrell, the bickering between Reilly and Hill never feels like an aside and remains convicted and essential to the story. The key to the film’s success is its thorough development of the ensemble as characters. The believability and dimensionality of John and Cyrus as real people (and, especially with the case of Hill’s Cyrus, this believability comes through via some surprising – but never detracting – ventures into dark territory) makes their bizarre behavior all the more convincing and, therefore, a hell of a lot funnier.

While Tomei doesn’t come across like she’s on the same page as Reilly and Hill (one gets a sense that the magnificent Tomei is a much better scripted actress than she is at doing improv), that matters not as her dynamic is separate from at of Reilly and Hill per the necessities of the story. The three great talents here are all on their A-game. My only complaint in this department is that the interesting, odd dynamic between Reilly and Keener’s characters is underdeveloped and gave room for little more than a few easy jokes through the very funny but, here, underused Matt Walsh as Keener’s fiancée. Cyrus is a wonderful character study that also happens to be a very funny movie. It’s also touching, sincere, and emotionally resonant in a way that few films genuinely are. It’s a wonderful treat to behold, and I’m excited to see where the newfound mainstream legitimacy of the Duplass brothers can take them from here.

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