Jay and Mark Duplass inch closer to successfully infusing comedy-of-awkwardness with pained pathos in Cyrus, a big-studio mumblecore hybrid of Mr. Woodcock and the Martin Short-Charles Grodin vehicle Clifford. Though shrewdly utilizing sudden zooms to amplify tension and emotion, the Duplass brothers’ latest follows in its predecessors footsteps by looking terrible, its faux-verité aesthetic unable to generate a requisite sense of realism to offset its sheer ugliness. Were such unattractiveness a reflection of the on-screen characters, this directorial unsightliness might be more understandable. Yet unlike their visual schemas, the duo’s protagonists are anything but hideous, exuding a desperation, charm, longing, and hurt that relegates them not to unpleasant caricatures, but something approaching fully realized human beings. To follow mumblecore fans’ lead and invoke the “C” word (Cassavetes!) would be going too far. Still, Cyrus considers its characters kindly, and in doing so, roots its wit in the pitiable need and loneliness of its trio of primary players: a video editor named John (John C. Reilly) trying to right his life’s wayward course seven years after divorce; an equally lonesome single mother named Molly (Marisa Tomei); and Molly’s creepily clingy 21-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who’s determined to break up the new couple.
Given Reilly’s participation as well as the overriding air of stunted social development, Cyrus also frequently feels like a lower-budgeted, sadder companion piece to Step Brothers. While that Adam McKay effort sought nothing but absurdist chuckles from its portrait of adults refusing to exit adolescence, the Duplasses want their goofiness to be—per Molly’s assessment of John’s confession about his own desires—“raw and honest.” Marked by a joint refusal to abandon early-stage parent-child dynamics (epitomized by a picture of a young Molly breastfeeding a giant Cyrus), Molly and Cyrus’s relationship is a malformed monster born from shared separation anxieties. John’s intrusion into this situation predictably results in passive-aggressive conflict with Cyrus, who views Molly’s new man as a threat to his weirdo status quo and responds by waging sneaky warfare involving shoe theft, inappropriate questions about John’s personal problems and sexual dalliances with Molly, and threats to move out. Though the directors don’t ever adequately balance the naturalism of Reilly and Tomei’s performances with the more subtly bonkers turn by Hill (who almost seems to have been teleported in from a more out-there movie), their empathy is consistent, with takes lasting a few seconds after dialogue has finished so that the grief and frustration lurking beneath the one-liners might better find a way to the surface.
Cyrus peaks in its first half and then slowly tails off, and even if it compensates for this decline by focusing more squarely during its third act on its characters’ emotional turmoil, that shift serves to reinforce the narrower but still-present disconnect between humor and drama that remains in the Duplasses’ work. Nonetheless, when fully engaged with the process of being funny, the film can be a riot, thanks in part to a rapport between Reilly and Hill that’s teeming with over-the-top seething resentment. Reilly’s tall, curly haired, slightly disheveled, and spastic John is a perfect foil for Hill’s squat, portly, neatly dressed, and methodically composed Cyrus, and their shared intensity—barely concealed beneath placid demeanors meant to please Molly—is the energy that drives the proceedings. As is so often the case with both stars, real comedic gold is found in those moments most heavily steeped in seemingly improvised riffing, from the sight of Hill barely moving his lips to mouth “fuck you” to a defeated John, to John responding to Cyrus’s performance of his ambient-trance-club music composition with a brilliantly befuddled, dishonest “It sounds like Steve Miller.” It’s the funniest—but far from only—lie in this mostly inspired rom-com, which recognizes deceit as a means for both compassion and confrontation even as it wends its way toward a celebration of selfless honesty.