Cyrus Review

Still struggling to get over his divorce John (John C. Reilly) is finding life pretty tough but when he meets the new love of his life, Molly (Marisa Tomei), things start looking up. That is until he meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Cyrus is Molly’s adult son and despite his age he still lives at home with Molly and is not too happy about the new man in her life.

Taking co-writing and directing credits on Cyrus the Duplass Brothers (Mark and Jay) seemed to be the names on every-one’s lips when this film was first announced and details began to emerge. For a quick primer on the Mark and Jay Duplass’ career head over here to an article written by yours truly.

Whilst I would not normally use a review of a film as the platform to ‘review’ the marketing materials, hopefully you will grant me a brief digression as it is of particular interest in the case of Cyrus.

It is perhaps interesting to note for instance how absent the Duplass name is from the majority of the marketing materials and how bizarrely this film appears to have been sold. The Blu-ray packaging is a litany of baffling choices, from that picture of the principal cast oddly smiling and Jonah Hill’s hand motioning wanker/throwing a punch?, the awkward tagline, the pull quotes surely poached from a different film (they don’t apply to this one very well), through to the statement on the back that “The laughs are bigger on Blu-ray”. Apparently a 1080p transfer and DTS audio provide “bigger laughs”.

During Cyrus’ UK theatrical run an acquaintance mentioned to me that he’d been to see the film and that he thought it was “rubbish… Nowhere near as good as Knocked Up or Step Brothers.” I asked if he’d seen any other films by Mark and Jay Duplass, to which he replied “I don’t think they’re in Cyrus. I think you’re thinking of a different film dude.” Obviously not everyone cares too much about directors/writers but Mark and Jay Duplass have, through their films, defined themselves as possessors of unique voices and approaches and as interesting and talented filmmakers. All this within the world of independent film and the arthouse circuit that their films have lived in. My anecdotal story touches on the problem with marketing a film in such a confusing manner, seemingly to entirely the wrong audience. Cyrus is not particularly similar to Knocked Up or Step Brothers and this expectation clearly ruined the enjoyment of one paying customer and most probably others.

Believed by many to be their crossover film Cyrus would perhaps have been better perceived without this stigma. Despite the 20th Century Fox backing and the reasonably well known stars Cyrus is entirely the work of Mark and Jay Duplass and it is still therefore something of a ‘difficult indie’ (although it is obviously not an actual indie). Building on their previous work the two have crafted a very special film that is raw, emotional and feels, often a rare thing in Hollywood, ‘true’. Not in that trite ‘Based on a true story’ way that often overshadows so many films but true in the sense that it gets at human truths and real emotions. The Duplass’ key skills seem to lie in their wonderfully clever writing and the way in which they elicit startling performances from their actors that help get to this truth.

Marisa Tomei has always been an actress that has surprised and impressed me in a variety of roles that have shown her to be a real talent so rarely given the chance to shine. She can be found laying herself bare (both physically and figuratively) in her emotionally intense performance in The Wrestler, exuding charm and bountiful joie de vive in Norman Jewison’s Only You and even watching her in reasonably bland fare such as the TV series Rescue Me it is obvious how effortlessly she seems to hold the camera. In Molly Tomei has a complex predicament to tackle in her performance. Ensuring that Molly’s relationship with Cyrus never comes across as creepy, aided by the clever plotting and slow reveals from Mark and Jay Duplass, she must still convey the intense bond between the two whilst at the same time communicating believable chemistry with John plus also be enchanting enough to ensure an audience wants her and John’s relationship to succeed. Tomei achieves this and then some and the natural appearance and flawless execution of all of this is perhaps the only reason her stellar performance has seemingly been so under-appreciated.

Jonah Hill and John C Reilly also turn in excellent performances in their combative roles as the two men vying for Molly’s affections. Jonah Hill is particularly surprising, bringing to Cyrus a suitably off kilter and uncomfortable edge but also, especially in the final act, a heart that is important in ensuring that he never comes across as ludicrous or over the top. John C Reilly has form in this area of lovable loser with a line in emotional honesty, Magnolia immediately springs to mind, but there are more layers to John’s character than may be first apparent and John C Reilly handles this complexity with ease.

These performances would most certainly not be what they are though without the careful and subtle approach that Mark and Jay Duplass take with their actors and the material. The three leads and the supporting cast, including a reliable turn from Catherine Keener, have been given the room to (if you’ll excuse the hackneyed but appropriate clichés) get under the skin of the characters and truly inhabit their roles. The approach of Mark and Jay Duplass bleeds into their style and the occasional focus shift or camera wobble is to be expected in their films but other elements are entirely deliberate and welcome choices. One such choice is their use of zoom though, often moving in and out for deliberate dramatic effect or at seemingly random moments. A minor gripe but this is one aspect of their technique that Cyrus would benefit from losing. With this exception though their stylistic approach works incredibly well and there use of close ups and dialogue fragments help make Cyrus an intimate and absorbing portrait of these three characters.

The character of Molly seems to speak to the strength of the film very well in an early scene. Speaking of a conversation John just had in which he bared his soul to stranger she says, “It was really raw and honest”.

A slightly different version of this review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.