Thursday, July 1, 2010

'Cyrus:' We laugh, even as we squirm

They're locked in a battle for love.

Cryus turns out to be several movies in one -- all united by a pitched battled between two apparent losers who hope to emerge victorious. And here's the hook: Both are competing for the affections of the same woman -- only she's one of their moms.

At first blush, Cyrus comes on like a straight-ahead comedy about a scattered and apparently hopeless middle-aged schlub whose life seems as crumpled as a discarded Kleenex.

The movie shifts gears when the hapless John (John C. Reilly) meets an attractive and apparently available woman (Marisa Tomei) who immediately responds to him. John’s loneliness begins to break down. Much to his amazement, he's made a connection.

A third door when John discovers that Tomei’s Molly lives with her grown son (Jonah Hill), an aspiring composer who seems to have an entirely unnatural attachment to his mother, an attachment that’s so strong, it threatens to undermine what might be John’s last chance at happiness.

Not all of the various threads in Cyrus cohere, but when the movie is funny, it’s as funny as any of this year’s more obviously engineered comedies.
The movie owes a lot – close to everything -- to its three principal actors:

Reilly plays a self-aware schlemiel in the tradition of a Woody Allen character, only without the gnawing neuroses and constant agitation. Reilly’s John is a decent guy who’s lost most of his confidence before the picture starts. He’s overly dependent on the advice of his ex-wife (Catherine Keener). She's engaged but can't quite cut poor John loose.

Hill’s popularity (acquired in such Judd Apatow comedies as Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall) generally has eluded me. Here, though, he finds a character that entirely suits him, a boy/man with big-time mommy issues. The script never quite clarifies how weird this mother-son relationship has become, a strategy that may frustrate some, but one that allows the movie’s writer/directors -- brothers Jay and Mark Duplass – to push viewers into speculative areas that sharpen the movie’s edge.

Tomei, a fine comic actress, plays a woman who seems ready to move beyond the mother phase of her life. Tomei’s Molly also grapples with the guilt generated by her devotion to a son with whom she has lived well past the time when he should have struck out on his own. No father is mentioned.

Molly’s social life -- or so we presume -- consists of occasional encounters with men, most of whom have been unable to withstand the pressures created by Cyrus, whose feigned sincerity can be unnerving. He’s as cunning as he is odd, and Hill’s deadpan performance makes him increasingly unappealing.
If you look a little past the surface, you’ll find unexpected nuance in Cyrus. Reilly’s John may not be quite as hopeless as he seems. When his ex-wife (a cheery Catherine Keener) invites him to a party, he spiffs up and shows up. True he gets drunk, but he also shows that he’s capable of taking the kind of risks that are required if one is to make real connections with others.

Tomei’s Molly isn’t all that she seems either. Away from Cryus, she’s an engaging woman who responds to honesty and helps to bolster John’s sagging ego. She’s smart enough to know that beneath John’s ineptitude, there’s something genuine. The script doesn’t spell it out, but you get the impression that Molly’s way past other kinds of relationships.
All of this evolves into a competition for Molly’s affections. Is Molly a mother? Or is she a companion and lover? Can the two roles be reconciled? They won’t be if Cyrus has anything do with it; he tries his best to ensure that mommy remains mommy.

Once John and Cyrus realize that they’re locked in winner-take-all combat, the movie sharpens its knives and lets them swipe at each other, a rivalry in which the Duplasses find a good deal of comic potential, some of it realized.

The Duplass brothers – Puffy Chair and Baghead – come out of the so-called Mumblecore movement that that was all the indie rage a couple of years back, and they bring some of that movement’s shaggy-dog ambiguity to Cyrus, which unfortunately tends to lose a bit of steam as it progresses. True to their low-budget roots, the Duplasses aren’t exactly groundbreakers when it comes to visual style.

Here, though, they excel at experimenting with a contrived situation. I’m not sure that you’d call Cyrus an entirely successful experiment, but it can be extremely funny. And it infuses its comedy and outlandish situations with something real – a feeling for the kind of loneliness that backs people into corners, trapping them in lives they’d rather not be leading.

That’s more substance than you’ll find in most comedies, and it helps elevate Cyrus into something more than a series of gags strung around a ton of obvious conceits. Exactly what that something is remains open to question, which isn’t an entirely bad thing. I enjoyed Cyrus a lot, even as I found myself wishing it were just a little bit better.

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