Review: Cyrus (2010)

“What kind of comedy would you say that was?” said the man.

The marketing guy had observed my considerable laughter during the movie. While I don’t believe in withholding my emotional response within a screening room, and while I cannot in good conscience fall into that dishonest “Oh, I loved the movie!” mode practiced by certain joyless New York film critics judging a flick after observing the collective herd, my approach does run the risk of Bernaysian collisions.

“I’ll give you a hint,” I said. “Albert Brooks.”

Surely my insinuation would lead the man to remember the great film, Modern Romance, where Brooks played a film editor attempting to grapple with his romantic neuroses. Surely this mention would cause the gentleman to observe that John C. Reilly’s character was also a film editor, and just as neurotic as Brooks. Alas, Albert Brooks, as great as he is, cannot be called “box office draw” even after the most creative fudging of the numbers. Alas, this marketing man was more concerned with general taxonomies. This was hardly a matter of artistic comparison. It was crass bean counting.

“Well, is it black comedy?” he said. “Quirky comedy?”

“Psychological,” I replied, beating a hasty retreat to the elevator and hoping to consider my thoughts and feelings on the subway home.

I want to be clear that the man was perfectly nice and was only doing his job. But the idea that a “psychological comedy” — particularly one as well-made as Cyrus — can no longer be marketable is something I must object to. When we live in a world in which a self-serving BP executive bemoans wanting his life back and in which millions of unemployed individuals cannot find jobs (with their unseen plights ignored by media and government alike), it would seem to me that the need to convey American psychology is more pressing than ever. Not through marketing, but through artistic representation.

I am delighted to report that Cyrus lives up to this task. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, and featuring John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill in plum roles, Cyrus is one of the few American comedies in recent memory where the character dysfunction invites us to examine motivations rather than bask in base American Idol-style ridicule. It’s a great relief to see the Duplass brothers reclaim reality television’s handheld camera work for their film, which neither overplays its quietly empathic hand nor resists portraying embarrassing truths. This Duplassian commitment establishes itself with our first introduction to John (John C. Reilly), ostensibly in the midst of masturbation. “I have jock itch,” John explains to his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener), who has showed up, unannounced, to check up. It continues when Jamie invites John to a cocktail party, where “people who will stimulate you intellectually” fail to do so. After our intoxicated hero strikes out with libidinous prospects, he goes outside to pee, meeting up with Molly (Marisa Tomei), who quickly responds, “Nice penis. Go ahead. Finish up.” But the two hit it off. They return inside. The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” — which John considers to be “the greatest song” — causes John to dance and embarrass himself further. Molly joins him. Our two middle-aged heroes return to John’s, where John declares Molly “a sex angel.” John awakes to a note reading JOHN: THAT WAS AWESOME. CALL ME. And after Molly accepts an invitation that very evening to a home-cooked meal at John’s, an impromptu relationship is formed.

“My life is really complicated right now,” explains Molly. John drives out to Molly’s house the next morning to knock on her door. His efforts are interrupted by the titular Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who is revealed to be Molly’s son. Cyrus is a boomerang kid — one of those post-teens who clings to parental comforts rather than making a move in the real world. He’s pursuing a dubious music career involving avant-garde keyboard compositions. “Sounds like Steve Miller,” says John after Cyrus plays a sample. “No, it doesn’t,” replies Cyrus. But Cyrus has unspecified psychological problems and a morbid sense of humor. “Don’t fuck my mom,” says Cyrus, once the parental relationship has been laid out. “I’m just kidding,” he says next without skipping a beat.

The Duplass brothers are extremely effective in using our established ideas of these actors to their advantage. Jonah Hill’s warmhearted presence takes some of the edge off Cyrus. And because of this, we become tremendously curious about the hold Cyrus has over his mother. And if John were played by an actor other than John C. Reilly, we might interpret his morning drive to Molly’s home as stalking. Yet Reilly is so good at maintaining an avuncular balance between loneliness and a goodhearted nature that we accept his moves.

And while Marisa Tomei is extremely good in this movie, I’m wondering just how long she’ll be able to play the middle-aged woman who has seen it all and yet quietly accepts her fate. Cyrus follows The Wrestler and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in this line. And while these films have permitted Tomei to shine, I’m baffled as to why filmmakers haven’t centered their films around Tomei, rather than making her the supporting nurturer.

Perhaps the answer to that latter concern has much to do with the marketing man who accosted me during the closing credits. Fox Searchlight threw a considerable amount of cash attempting to promote Cyrus. In the week before its release, the film sponsored numerous WNYC programs. Pop-up ads invaded several major movie-related websites. Yet my conversation, which I felt compelled to note here in the interest of ethical transparency, would seem to indicate that today’s studios don’t see “psychological comedy” as an audience draw. That’s truly a pity. Because Cyrus demonstrates why it’s so important to pay attention to the smaller people around the corners. For their stories are often more fascinating than the loud explosions.


  1. Just a couple of corrections:

    “But the two hit it off. They return inside. The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ — which John considers to be ‘the greatest song’ — causes John to dance and embarrass himself further. Molly joins him.”

    They both don’t return inside. When John hears “Don’t You Want Me” he drunkenly explains that he has to go inside to hear the song, leaving Molly sort of befuddled outside. And while John embarrasses himself in the first 15 seconds, I think the note the scene was trying to convey is that John is actually a fun guy, able to get a room of people to dance to “Don’t You Want Me.” Molly helps, of course, because she enters the room while John is in mid Frantic Seacrest mode, and sings with him. I liked how the film seemed to be suggesting that our need for decorum can get in the way of a good time.

    “John drives out to Molly’s house the next morning and knocks on her door.”

    John doesn’t knock on the door. He skulks about and is surprised by Cyrus, then later tells Cyrus that he didn’t knock because he wasn’t sure if this was Molly’s house or not.

  2. Yeah, but did you like the review?

    This is needless nitpicking. On the first moment, they both eventually return inside. I don’t think the timing here matters. But your observation after the nitpick is certainly astute. As to the second moment, I have made a slight correction. Exceptionally pedantic, but I do see that you’re correct.

  3. “Terence this is stupid stuff.”

    I guess the reason I’m nitpicky on the first piece is because I thought it was sort of an important moment. In your write-up, it sounds like they go from their meet-cute by the pee-shrub back into the house together. Instead, John Asperger’s his way inside, leaving Molly in a socially awkward lurch. He says he’ll come back for her, but the audience doesn’t know Molly well enough to know if she’ll wait for him or if he’s blown his chances with someone who approached him. (Granted: Marissa Tomei’s name’s on the poster; it’s not like she has a cameo. But I’m taking the narrative at face value and not including stuff we may get from the previews.) That she follows him later, to me, is significant. (And that “to me” is probably the clincher — it’s important to me; you may not see it as material to your review. However, since I’d seen the movie, it seemed to get the story wrong.)

    The second nitpick is of a kind with the first. What I thought the movie was trying to do (and ultimately, I didn’t like it very much as a story) was to show three broken people people trying to navigate a relationship together. So again, for me, it’s important that John not knock. Knocking is the grown-up thing to do. (Actually, not stalking the woman you just met, regardless of her weird behavior, is the grown-up thing to do. But who here among us is a grown up, amiright?)

    I very much agreed with this sentence: “Cyrus is one of the few American comedies in recent memory where the character dysfunction invites us to examine motivations rather than bask in base American Idol-style ridicule.” I think that was its goal, too. I’m just not as convinced as you are that it’s totally successful. And, unfairly on my part, I’m left at the end thinking, “These are two people who shouldn’t be together at all until after quite a bit of extensive therapy. Maybe after they’ve committed Cyrus.”

    It’s rare that I’m exceptional at anything. I’ll take “exceptionally pedantic” as a compliment, if you don’t mind.

  4. Mike: Just to be clear on this, I do appreciate your efforts to pinpoint motivations here. And you’ve succeeded in having me ponder whether this review here should have been longer — so that we might indeed get further into these fascinating characters! You’re right to point out to how John leaves Molly. The film is, at that point, told very much from his perspective. But in adopting this narrative tactic of dropping Molly, the film very much mimics the way that people of John’s type do get lost inside their own heads. Particularly in awkward social situations. So I think it was very important that we didn’t exactly get to know Molly from the get go. From John’s (and the film’s) subjective perspective, Molly is extraordinary for intervening when the Human League comes on. Then when he does do this, we learn that she’s not quite what we expected.

    As to your second nitpick, I should also point out that the film is also very much about people fall into bad habits and unhealthy social routines. The weird morning escapades that Molly and Cyrus make to the park. The way that John badgers his ex-wife and her future husband. That the film is also very much committed to John attempting to play armchair psychotherapist with Molly is one very big clue that this isn’t just your typical relationship movie and that it wishes to align itself with similar territory explored by Albert Brooks in the 1980s. This tension is also what made the movie very funny for me, and it’s one that most of the critics (particularly the New York elitists) tended to miss. So for me, the film succeeded quite well. Whether John, Molly, and Cyrus will get together is not necessarily important. The film begins and ends with an open door. And that open door suggested to me that, no matter how these characters end up, they will have learned something about themselves, or perhaps ensnared themselves in a bad habit. That’s the American dilemma in a nutshell. Would it be softened by therapy? By not judging others so much? By not theorizing or scheming against others? We don’t know. And the irony here is that the audience is encouraged to speculate and judge, in much the same manner as John. Are we also getting ourselves into trouble? Is the open door John’s or the audience’s?

  5. What’s your take on the end? I off-handedly said to Zach (my partner) that Cyrus is like a smart virus that recognizes that in order to continue to thrive in its host (i.e., Marissa Tomei who, totally agreed, has to start getting better roles because (a) she looked amazing and (b) she’s up to the challenge. She should have a long talk with Catherine Keener about the dangers of typecasting because pretty much as soon as I see Catherine Keener in a movie — and I love her, don’t get me wrong — I can be sure that her marriage is in deep trouble) it has to change its tactics. It never becomes benign; it simply irritates in new ways.

    So I don’t buy any of Cyrus’s end-game. What I can’t tell is if the film wants us to buy it.

    I also wasn’t convinced that anyone changed in the film. “Do they need to?” Zach asked. “And doesn’t Molly acknowledge that she may have fucked things up with Cyrus? And isn’t that growth?” I don’t know. I know I like it better when Zach’s wrong about everything. I may have failed the movie, though, and wanted it to be something that it wasn’t trying to be.

    Finally, when we saw the film, I had lobbied hard to see Winter’s Bone but was ultimately outvoted. “I’ve already seen my quota of poor people today,” Zach said.

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