In Cyrus, a freakishly engrossing black comedy about excessively mothered men and the women who enable them, the excellent John C. Reilly plays John, a middle-aged editor who lives like a stalled graduate student in his cluttered Los Angeles cottage. That’s where his former wife and close friend, Jamie (Catherine Keener, all aglow as ever), finds him masturbating to loud music when she drops in to tell him she’s getting married again. Once he gets over his panic, John lapses into his customary low-grade depression, from which Jamie tries to rescue him by dragging him, along with her long-suffering fiancé (Matt Walsh), to a party. There, he will make an utter fool of himself and take a risk that will change his life for the better—and much, much worse.
Warm, loving, and honest to a fault, John is an ideal husband trapped in the awkward body of a superannuated boy. “I’m like Shrek,” this adorably homely man cries in wonder at the interest shown in him by Molly (Marisa Tomei), the only woman at the party who will give him the time of day. Few actresses in or out of Hollywood have moved into middle age more intelligently than Tomei—and without conceding the sweetly erotic sensuality that has made her such a blast all the way back to My Cousin Vinny. Without doing much of anything, she makes us see how this glamorous, opaquely sad fox might be charmed by John’s oafish candor. It’s not long before John himself, marveling at his luck but wondering why his first lover in seven years never invites him back to her house, follows her home and finds out.
As bad seeds go, Molly’s son, Cyrus, seems polite and innocuous enough at first. With his round, staring blue eyes, goldfish lips, and unhelpful shirt stretched over a huge gut, Jonah Hill looks, as always, like a slightly astonished honeydew melon. But the actor cannily dials down the schoolboy hysteria that has defined his persona in the Judd Apatow oeuvre, into a lethally seditious calm that threatens to break any second. Co-dependent doesn’t begin to describe the bond between Molly and Cyrus, who is “focusing” on a “music career” largely confined to their cramped living room, where he bangs out new-agey compositions on a synthesizer. “It’s great to have a new dad,” he tells John with imperturbable calm soon after they’ve met, then slides into the bathroom where his mother is taking a shower. By now, you’ll be less surprised than John is to learn that Molly never fully closes her bedroom door, even when there’s company sleeping over.
So begins a slow war of attrition as excruciatingly funny to watch as it is horrifying to be caught up in, a face-off between a naïve man who doesn’t know what it means to play mind games, a woman too smart not to know what she claims not to know, and her son, the emotional terrorist. Physically, they make a wildly incongruous trio, this tiny, sexy woman, her ungainly boyfriend, and the humongous son who uses every tool in his repertoire to sabotage their romance. Yet nothing—not even the carving knife Cyrus holds in his fat paw when John stumbles upon him making a midnight sandwich—is overplayed in a movie that wanders teasingly along the border between sorrow and laughter.
Jay and Mark Duplass, whose enjoyably meandering first film, The Puffy Chair, was made for $15,000, direct Cyrus. The brothers come loosely associated with the mumblecore movement, membership in which, so far as I can tell, is determined by a blithe indifference to story structure. Known to employ a hair-raisingly improvisational shooting style, the Duplasses shoot in chronological order, altering the script as necessary and editing the footage they have at the end of each day. That Cyrus was made with Hollywood money (Ridley and Tony Scott, neither famous for the experimental method, are executive producers) and with big-name stars may account for the satisfying formal coherence of this hilarious, often surprising movie.
Cyrus may be a conniving monster, but he isn’t the only one here who needs to pry himself loose from an overly protective woman. How you read the ending of this wickedly ambiguous, yet strangely tender parsing of modern relationships will depend to a degree on which genre you think the film falls into, but far more on whether you think there’s such a thing, in this age of perpetual youth, as a grown-up.