Appearances can be deceiving. Take Cyrus, the latest comedy from writer/director pairing Jay and Mark Duplass. Certainly, if one were to gaze upon its theatrical poster a number of seemingly telling points stand out; John C. Reilly smirking like a bemused bulldog, Marisa Tomei’s alluring half-smile and Jonah Hill’s cold, reptilian eyes piercing through your soul. Fox Searchlight seem to want this film to resemble another Apatow-esque comedy conflict, a first impression which is entirely erroneous; Cyrus is, in fact, a slow, sincere film more interested in characters and relationships than timed pratfalls – arguably to its detriment.
The plot sees Reilly’s John, depressed following the announcement that his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is remarrying, find salvation in Tomei’s kindly MILF, Molly, only to discover that she lives with her rather peculiar 21 year-old son, the titular Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Though relations between John and Cyrus are initially civil, the latter’s increasingly questionable behaviour leads John to suspect that he’s trying to sabotage their relationship and starts to fight back.
Ordinarily one would be tempted to append “hilarity ensues” to the above synopsis, and the film’s opening (Keener interrupting a masturbation session, Reilly’s excruciating alcohol-fuelled Human League rendition) strays more into the frat-pack territory teased in the aforementioned marketing material. However, the tone of the film shifts as soon as he meets Tomei, swiftly evolving into a piece which displays a confidence and affection for its characters. This prevents proceedings from descending into a Step Brothers-esque clash of the cretins.
The film’s centrepiece is undoubtedly Reilly’s performance. Unlike some of his more recent work (Dewey Cox, hang your inordinately huge, frizzy head in shame), here he imbues the loveable loser persona which has haunted him since Chicago with naturalistic intelligence and wry self-deprivation (he even dubs himself “Shrek” at one point). Compare this to, say, his wild-eyed, slobbering sidekick in Talladega Nights and one can appreciate the fact that Reilly is, for a change, playing a character who feels like a human being.
He does, however, find a worthy opponent in Hill’s maladjusted stay-at-home sprog – a suitably sinister rival to Tomei’s affections. Boasting a creepy grin and overbearingly friendly outward manner, he unnerves but never overcooks. Indeed, despite the periodic flash of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle-esque threat (Cyrus beckoning John over to him whilst brandishing a particularly protracted kitchen knife, for instance), Hill ensures that – yet again – his character is graced with subtle shading bereft of outright lunacy, even undergoing some convincing final act character development.
Equally commendable is the oddly tender depiction of Cyrus’ relationship with his mother. Though the situation may be frequently mined for laughs (the two’s sharing of a lavatory being of particular note), it’s never outright mocked or exploited, rather the subject of gentle, understanding joshing. This is aided significantly by Tomei’s accomplished portrayal of single mum Molly, effortlessly convincing as she does in both her chemistry with Hill and her affection for Reilly.
However, subtle and nuanced as proceedings predominantly are, sometimes this diminishes the film’s comic effect and one ends up yearning for the surreal slapstick of some of the more standard frat-pack fare. Though frequently winsome and endearing, Cyrus crucially lacks many outright laughs, with most humour derived more from awkward silences and the curious corpse-like expression permanently painted on Hill’s enormous face.
Belly laughs, then, are sacrificed for nuance; refusing the easy route of simply mocking the trio’s unfortunate situation in lieu of a more poignant portrayal of motherhood and misery, Cyrus‘ is certainly a worthy trade. Nonetheless, there is, this reviewer would argue, something still to be said for stupidity in comedy; the work of Apatow et al may be comparatively cartoonish but it bears its own rapid-fire, lightweight charm which ensures that an audience is always entertained, albeit in a world populated by imbeciles and grotesques.
Cyrus, in comparison, may have believable characters and a good heart, but its crucial lack of sheer amusement renders it a respectable but slightly lacking indie effort.