By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Cyrus is an uneasy viewing experience, which makes sense. Why shouldn't we feel as uncomfortable as the Oedipal triangle unfolding on the screen?
It isn't just the subject matter but the deliberate — some will say dull — way that filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass lay out this dramedy of social awkwardness. The movie is sold in preview trailers as a companion piece to Step Brothers (both starring John C. Reilly) or the next Jonah Hill geek fest, and that's grossly misleading.
Cyrus studies its damaged characters closely, with long, unbroken takes in which people talk a lot and reveal just a little more than what was obvious before. The trailer's physical comedy isn't funny when it happens; it's brief comic relief from a creepy conflict of needs.
Reilly is in his acting wheelhouse as John, an easily crushed kind of guy that you'd want to hug if he weren't so gloomy. John shares his lonely feelings with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and her fiance (Matt Walsh) who, in a rare display of movie maturity, are actually sympathetic. They yank him out of his tiny apartment to attend a party, where John drinks too much and demands to dance when chatting is preferred.
He's rescued from embarrassment by vivacious Molly (Marisa Tomei), who jumps into the Human League rhythm and takes a shine to the big lug. They make a date, then another. Molly is everything John ever wanted in a woman. Too bad there's more.
On a surprise visit to Molly's home, John meets the son she didn't tell him about. Cyrus (Hill) is 20-something, living at home with no intention of leaving. Not that he makes a big deal of that; his security is steeped in passive-aggressive acts that begin with stealing John's shoes and end — I've imagined — after the movie concludes. Cyrus plays his mother like a sad violin, currying attention with fake illnesses and intimate gestures suggesting incest, always setting up John's relationship with Molly for failure.
There's no way to make this a feel-good movie, and admirably the Duplass brothers don't try. Cyrus finds its humor in dark places, through characters bringing out the worst in each other. Hardly a rollicking time at the movies, but one that fascinates and frustrates (in a good way, from an arty perspective).
The performances make this material work, capitalizing on the improvisational breathing room that is the Duplasses' signature (and mocked as "mumblecore" in some corners). The scenes between Reilly and Tomei — both among the best at playing damaged goods— have a fun, casual intimacy that sets the stakes high. Hill uses his doughy physique to evoke a creepy, big baby capable of anything. Hill's Superbad fans are in for a surprise.
John and Cyrus' feud would be solved faster by stronger people, and funnier by a joke machine like Judd Apatow. The Duplass brothers think emotional weaklings are more interesting, and dirty laughs are overrated, even if it means trying moviegoers' patience. Cyrus feels stretched even at 92 minutes, yet that feels nice with a quiet, well-acted film in a summer of noise.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.