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Directed by

Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass


Review by Zach Saltz

Posted - 8/1/10


Before audiences of Cyrus jump to the reasonable conclusion that Marisa Tomei is way too good for John C. Reily or Jonah Hill (or any man, for that matter), let’s consider the precedents set by her underwhelming former cinematic beaus: Joe Pesci (My Cousin Vinny), William Mapother (In the Bedroom), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead), William H. Macy (Wild Hogs).  This list doesn’t even include Mel Gibson in What Women Want, who lies by telling her he’s gay just so that she can stop bothering him.  Nor does it include her one-episode love affair with George Costanza, and we cannot simply excuse her onscreen taste in men by the Seinfeldian conclusion that her type is uniformly “short, quirky, and bald.”

What is wrong with Tomei?  The Brooklyn accent doesn’t come close to verging into Rosie Perez or Fran Dresher territory, and no one questions her jaw-dropping good looks (proof of this was her always-convincing roles as a prostitute in The Perez Family and a stripper in The Wrestler).  The courtroom scene in My Cousin Vinny where she tells off Lane Smith by exclaiming that Chevrolet didn’t offer the Bel Air model with a four-barrel carburetor until 1964 may be the single hottest “Girls shouldn’t know about this stuff . . . Excuse me while I jizz my pants” moment before the “Chicks With Guns” video in Jackie Brown.  And how is she rewarded for this?  She goes back to New York with Joe Pesci, screaming that her biological clock is ticking and she desperately needs him to boink her.  That’s right, she wants Harry-from-Home-Alone-and-Tommy-from-GoodFellas Joe Pesci to give it to her.  That’s why I will always defend her Oscar win for this role – it takes true acting skill to portray anyone who actually believes Joe Pesci to be a sex god.

(Side note: This is why I think the Oscars of Marlee Matlin, Geena Davis, Holly Hunter, Mira Sorvino, and Halle Berry were justified.  Convincing us that they honestly wanted to have consensual sex with William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Woody Allen, and Billy Bob Thornton is a pretty amazing feat.)

In Cyrus, one of her problems is that, predictably, Tomei’s character, Molly, finds John C. Reily hot, but her larger problem is that of her 21-year-old son, the titular Oedipal Complex-stricken lad played by Jonah Hill.  He wants her all to himself, which under any other Tomei circumstance would not really be a problem (have you seen how fat he’s gotten?), except that, well, she’s his mother and this isn’t France.  The implication here is not so much that Cyrus wants to have sex with his mother, but rather that he wants to mooch off her, and he’s keenly aware that any man who intervenes will grow weary of his self-absorbed act.

Reily’s character, John, senses that there is something unusually close about the relationship between his sex buddy/potential girlfriend and her son (and it goes beyond their dancing to Cyrus’ techno-remix, entitled “Cyrus The Dance of Isotopes 2 and 3”) but stays mostly quiet about, except occasional ramblings directed toward his ex-wife/confidante Catherine Keener.  First, Cyrus steals his shoes.  Then the stakes are raised when Cyrus announces that he will move out of the house, and John seizes the opportunity to call his bluff and move in with Molly.

So far, the plot of Cyrus doesn’t sound too far removed from Step Brothers, Mr. Woodcock, or any Apatow film (especially given the presence of Reily and Apatow alums Hill and Keener).  Where the Duplass’ movie differs is in its treatment of its three main characters – they aren’t simply over exaggerated, laugh-a-second caricatures, but complex, difficult people.  John is a painfully unhappy middle-aged loser, but he genuinely cares about Molly and, as a byproduct, the annoying kid.  Because Cyrus is played by Jonah Hill, we laugh at him, even though almost nothing of what he says or does is actually funny.  Replace Hill with Robert Pattinson and the movie becomes a sober family drama.  There aren’t very many Parent Trap-esque hijinks to be found here because Cyrus is more concerned with the honest emotional repercussions of adult relationships than childish slapstick.

And then there is Tomei, who is luminous.  The character of Molly actually isn’t too far removed from Tomei’s role in In the Bedroom – a vulnerable, emotional single mother who puts her children above anything else.  While this makes her noble, it doesn’t excuse her for being entirely clueless as to the aims of the men surrounding her.  There are two brief scenes in Cyrus where she is depressed (laying sleepless in bed and flipping through the TV channels on the couch, respectively) and Reily and Hill try to console her – but she is inconsolable, not bitter or cold, but heartbroken.  It is in these moments that the audience truly feels for her; that these two men are the most important parts of her life, and if she cannot work their problems out, she will bear the guilt and blame it on herself.  One senses this is a chronic pattern of hers with every man Cyrus has rejected in the past.  This is a thankless role if there ever was one, but Tomei breathes life into it, and however zany Reily and Hill are, she is the real reason why Cyrus works – because as both a mother and lover, she is unilaterally convincing and sympathy-inducing.  Amazingly, I haven’t cared about a movie character more in 2010.

Two complaints with Cyrus.  The first is that the Duplass Brothers have indulged themselves so greatly in their beloved aesthetic (“mumblecore”) that it seriously undermines the delicate characterizations.  No, we don’t need clumsy zooms or amateur swish pans to express confusion or anxiety on the part of the characters, or The Limey-inspired dialogue track played over characters who aren’t actually speaking.  What the filmmakers are doing here is clear enough: exaggerating the discomfort through minimalist, grainy docu-narrative.  But it’s tired, unnecessary.  Duplass Brothers: With a cast this recognizable, you’re not fooling anyone when you try to convince us this movie was shot for $14.

The other flaw is a “good” flaw, if there is such a thing: Cyrus moves too fast.  These characters are so well-drawn and the atmosphere is so entertaining, it’s unfortunate that the movie ends as early as it does, and we are left with relatively few scenes with the three main characters together in the same setting.  Therefore, I predict some excellent “deleted scenes” on the Cyrus DVD.  Perhaps some cameos of Joe Pesci getting his shoes stolen by Cyrus, or William H. Macy getting punched in a portapotty, or Cyrus walking in on Molly and Philip Seymour Hoffman having sex and being utterly repulsed.  After seeing Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I can’t blame him.



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