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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Cyrus

In the film Cyrus, written and directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, John C. Reilly stars a John, a pretty pathetic fellow whose self-confidence is not improved by the news that his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), is about to re-marry.  Jamie convinces John to join her and her fiancee at a friend’s party.  To John’s great surprise, he actually winds up hitting it off with a beautiful woman named Molly (Marisa Tomei).  They go on a couple of dates, all of which go very well.  Molly seems wonderful.  But when he notices that Molly never seems willing to spend a whole night at his place, John begins to wonder if she’s married, or if she’s hiding some other secret from him.  When he follows her home one day, he discovers what that secret is: her 21-year-old son, Cyrus.  Molly has raised Cyrus by herself, and neither has ever been able to separate from the other.  He still lives with her, but that’s the least of it!  To call their relationship co-dependant would be a dramatic understatement, and John is forced to wonder whether he can ever fit into the life that those two have created for each other.

I’d read some rave reviews about Cyrus when it played at festivals earlier this year.  Even though it’s release to theatres fizzled this past summer, I was eager to watch it on DVD.  I’d read that this was a black comedy, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the weirdness on display in this film!!  It certainly goes to some places I did not expect.  There’s a lot that I enjoyed about the film, though I can’t really say that it all worked for me.

The biggest problem with the movie, for me, was the first twenty-or-so minutes before we meet Cyrus.  The film takes this time to establish John as a character.  I understand that we need to learn that he’s lonely and odd, because we need to understand why he doesn’t head for the hills at the first whiff of weirdness between Molly & Cyrus.  The filmmakers need to show us that John is a man pretty desperate for love and companionship, and that is what causes him to stick things out and try to fight for Molly’s affections.  But, boy, I think the Duplass brothers went WAY too far over the top in presenting John as such an extraordinarily pathetic loser in those opening scenes.  Those sequences are just PAINFUL to watch — I didn’t find any humor in those scenes, they just made me squirm.

The film comes to life, though once we meet Cyrus.  Jonah Hill has come a long way since the first movie he appeared in with Catherine Keener (that would be The Forty Year Old Virgin, when he appeared in one star-making scene, attempting to buy a pair of boots from her e-bay store).  I really dig his performance as the emotionally stunted Cyrus.  He’s able to take this pretty outrageous premise and turn it into an actual character.  We see Cyrus do some pretty terrible things in the film — we see the emotional manipulation that he’s smart enough to be able to carry out — but we also see his sweetness, and his vulnerability.

Speaking of sweetness and vulnerability, John C. Reilly brings both to his performance as John.  Despite those rough opening twenty-or-so minutes, I really grew to like Mr. Reilly’s performance as John in the film.  I found myself rooting for him to succeed.  It helps a lot that I think his character is much better written in the second half of the film — his reactions in the second half seem fairly human and normal, and I think that helped me connect with his character.  But it does come down to Mr. Reilly’s skill at making even outlandish situations seem real and grounded, with a core of emotional truth.  There’s a scene late in the film that Mr. Reilly and Mr. Hill share, sitting on the steps of John’s apartment, that is just terrific.  The two actors are both phenomenal, and the scene has an emotional payoff earned by their great work.

Then there is Marisa Tomei.  Boy, I know she went through some lean years post-Cousin Vinny (a film I have never found funny, no matter what anyone says), but she has been just terrific in a series of films in the past few years: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Wrestler, and now this.  She brings great warmth and believability to Molly, and when she’s forced to wrestle (not literally!) late in the film with her strong emotional connections with the two men in her life, John and Cyrus, she’s tremendously affecting.  She is also, I should note, absolutely gorgeous, god bless her!

But as solid as I found all three lead performers to be (and Catherine Keener is also great, as always, in her supporting role), the film never quite came together for me.  There were some stylistic devices that never really clicked for me (such as the way that many conversations in the film are edited so that we hear dialogue being spoken while seeing a shot of that character when their mouth isn’t actually moving), but most of all I never quite connected with the main dramatic storyline.  Everything just seemed a little too outlandish.  John seems way TOO over-the-top of a bizarre loser at the beginning for me to believe that Molly would have anything to do to him, and some of the weirdness with Cyrus is so extreme that it’s hard for me to believe that John would hang around for as long as he does.  There are some very funny moments in Cyrus, but this isn’t a yuk-a-minute comedy film.  That’s fine, but in that case I think the dramatic aspects need to work a bit more effectively than they do here.

I don’t want to come off too negatively.  As I wrote above, there is a LOT that I enjoyed about Cyrus. In particular, the three lead performances are really great — strong enough to make the film worth watching just for them.  And this is certainly a unique film with a distinct voice, which I truly value.  I’m glad to have seen it, but I don’t think this is a film I’ll be revisiting too soon.

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