Two guys vying for one girl—it's a story that's been told a few times before. But the new comedy-drama Cyrus brings an unconventional angle to the well-worn love triangle.
John (John C. Reilly) is divorced and has given up hope of meeting another woman he could be with. But he's still on friendly terms with his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener), who drags him to a party in the hope of helping him find someone new. Despite his lack of social grace, John eventually hits it off with a woman named Molly (Marisa Tomei).
They start spending a lot of time together, but never at Molly's place. John suspects she's hiding something, so one evening he tails her back to her house. There he discovers her secret: Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a chubby 21-year-old with an unrelenting, watery-eyed stare and a passion for avant-garde synth compositions—and who is Molly's son by her long-deceased husband. Cyrus still lives at home and has no friends outside his mother. To him, then, John is a rival, and soon he launches a war of stolen shoes and midnight threats.
There are other films in which, to win the woman he loves, a man must also win over a kid; About a Boy is one instance. But the difference with Cyrus is that the "child" obstacle—being a maladjusted 20-something who is extremely close to his mom—at times plays more like a romantic rival. Such a combination sounds troubling, but this mother-son relationship remains innocent enough to be more awkward than disturbing. The awkward dynamic lays the foundation for a brand of humor that is refreshingly unexpected and smartly understated.
In one scene, for example, John and Cyrus are talking in Molly's bedroom while she takes a shower in the adjoining bathroom. Cyrus then casually turns to open the bathroom door.
"Actually, your mom's using the shower," John says—by which point Cyrus has breezed right in and closed the door behind him. Apparently nothing out of the ordinary has happened, and the camera cuts right back to John, squinting with perplexity. This simple reaction shot gets a laugh purely off of the timing and the foil between the absurdity of the moment and the normalcy of John's perspective. This is the kind of wordless, rhythmic punch line that characterizes Cyrus.
In fact, as unusual as Cyrus's character is, the film is very naturalistic in style. Co-directors/co-writers Jay and Mark Duplass, making their studio debut, are known for their emphasis on improvisation. When shooting a scene, they show the actors a script and help them understand where the scene needs to go; then they ask the actors to find their own words to take the action to the same destination. (The Duplass brothers joke that this disregard for the script would make it impossible for them to ever direct someone else's screenplay.) With this improvisational approach, the conversations in Cyrus feel especially natural, in their pacing and inflection.
The naturalism extends as well to the camera work. A handheld camera restlessly moves with the characters, often jumping in closer with an abrupt zoom; it's a bit of a "home video" effect. This makes us feel as though we're not passive observers of a polished production but instead that we inhabit the same space as these characters. This sharpens the recurrent awkwardness, whether to comedic or more poignant effect.
Another way to think about the film's naturalism is in terms of honesty: being as true as possible to the character or the moment. This idea of honesty isn't only expressed stylistically, but also, both negatively and positively, in the relationships between the characters.
At the party where they meet, Molly is impressed by John's extreme honesty. But then she is afraid to be open with John about the existence of Cyrus. During John's first dinner at Molly's place, Cyrus asks John to reveal not only what he does, but who he is. This leads to another brutally honest confession from John. When John and Cyrus begin feuding over Molly, they keep her in the dark about the feud for as long as they can. Later on, John becomes increasingly blunt with Cyrus about the developmental problems that he appears to have.
In general, honesty is presented as a good thing. Honesty allows for intimacy; dishonesty breaks trust. But there are moments when this virtue comes into tension with other concerns. Early on, John admits to Cyrus that he's been sleeping with his mother; after all, John reasons, Cyrus is an adult and should know. But really, should he? And when John begins feuding with Cyrus, he wants to tell Molly how unstable Cyrus appears to be, but he doubts she will believe him, and if she doesn't, she may be provoked to dump him. How honest can you be with someone who may not be ready to hear it? (Incidentally, the biggest flaw in Cyrus is how abruptly the title character arrives at a point of difficult recognition about himself.) As radically honest as the film aims to be, Cyrus also shows how honesty can sometimes overstep healthy boundaries.
Perhaps the best part about Cyrus, though, is neither its thematic import nor its convincing dialogue, but rather the uncanny stare of Jonah Hill, best known for his roles in Judd Apatow comedies like Knocked Up and Superbad. The character Cyrus, though, requires a much more understated presence. Hill must communicate both innocence and malevolence through a socially underdeveloped 21-year-old who says as much by his looks as his words. He does this with a stare that is frighteningly direct and opaque, and yet not quite the lidless eye of Sauron, made fragile by his frequent blinking. It's the most memorable image in the film, though the final one—a long shot of Tomei strolling across her character's front porch—is the most lovely.Discussion starters
- How should someone seek to relate to the child of the person they are dating? In John's case, how could he have best dealt with Cyrus?
- How do we tend to justify our dishonesty with those we love?
- Are we ever tempted to be too honest, too vulnerable? If so, what else besides a desire for telling the truth is behind that impulse?
- How does Molly's parenting contribute to Cyrus's under-development?
- How might a more conventional style of filming have changed the way you saw and understood these characters?
The Family Corner
Cyrus is rated R for language and some sexual material. Included in the language is a host of f-words. There are a couple of sex scenes, but the nudity is hidden. There is also a partial, fleeting glimpse of Reilly's rear end.
Photos © Fox Searchlight.
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