Cyrus was the only movie-going experience I could think up to follow Inception. In that spirit, the only quality that Cyrus has in common with Inception is that both movies had me going, and I can’t say that I could tell for sure where either one was going, right up until the very end. In fact, Cyrus takes a fairly conventional turn in its final moments, and that was the biggest surprise it possibly could have pulled.
It’s probably best if you go into Cyrus knowing as little about it as possible, the way I did. The trailer reveals many of the better jokes and turns and reveals that the story has to offer, so I suggest you skip it. Part of me is hoping that there are people out there who think that Cyrus is an epic biopic, spanning from the early 1990s until today, focusing on the shitty faux-country legacy of Billy Ray Cyrus and his mullet, only to result in the astronomical success of his stage-fathered daughter. This obviously isn’t that movie, but try to tell Google that. (When I Googled Cyrus in order to supplement this review, I was battered with hundreds of pictures of Miley.)
No, Cyrus is instead a relatively simple story of a man who meets a woman whose grown son throws a major monkeywrench into their growing relationship. The man is John C. Reilly. The woman is Marisa Tomei. The son is Jonah Hill. I guess it’d be a fair assumption to expect that this is a retread of Step Brothers, but it so isn’t. And I loved Step Brothers, so don’t take that as a dismissal. But I think I liked this even more. The reason is that Cyrus plays the comedy so straight, and the characters feel realer even when the story pushes the boundaries between movie-reality and outright comedy.
John C. Reilly’s character is named John (noticeably, none of the characters seem to have been given last names) and he is first introduced in the movie when his ex-wife and confidante Jamie – played by Catherine Keener – walks in on him listening to reggaeton on headphones and rubbing one out. She’s there to invite him to a party, a rare social engagement for him, and also to remind him to attend her upcoming wedding (to Tim, played by Matt Walsh, a great comedian playing the straight man.) I guess the point of this awkward introduction is to establish the fact that John is a guy who is used to enduring uncomfortable situations. It gets rougher for him.
At the party, Jamie and Tim push John into hitting on every single girl who strays far enough from the herd. As he keeps getting shot down, he keeps getting progressively drunker. It’s when he goes outside to relieve himself against a wall that he meets Molly, a super-smokin’ forty-something played by Marisa Tomei, who enters with one of the movie’s best lines. John is shocked to discover that nothing he does is anything less than charming to Molly, and their relationship takes off. The only catch is that she’s a little mysterious about where she goes when she’s not with him, so John does some clumsy investigating. Which is how he meets Cyrus. Which is when things get really weird.
This movie is all about the bizarre dynamic between Molly and John, Molly and Cyrus, and ultimately John and Cyrus. I feel like I’ve already described too much, so I won’t mention any of the weird and keenly-observed and –imagined details that make this bizarre love triangle so compelling and surprising. Even when it turns conventional, it’s pretty unconventional. I’ve never seen characters like this before, and I’ve never seen interactions like this before. (Which is maybe a good thing.) So let me just praise the actors for a minute:
First, John C. Reilly. It’s so good to have him in a movie like this again. It’s been nice to have him as strong support in big-budget Scorsese productions and as the prestige token in Will Ferrell comedies, but it’s even more special when this unusual actor works at a lower volume. John C. Reilly first came into prominence via Paul Thomas Anderson’s first three movies, where he was a relatable, lovable, and believable iconoclast of an actor. It’s not that Cyrus isn’t funny, or that John C. isn’t funny in it, because funny is a big part of this role. I’m just saying that it’s nice to see him working on a smaller stage again, because he truly is unbeatable in this arena. His character here is pretty severely flawed and stunted, but somehow he remains the most immediately understandable character.
Then you have Marisa Tomei, who in a better world is considered America’s sweetheart.
Sandra Bullock, my ass! Here’s a smattering of Sandra Bullock’s love-interest resume in movies: Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Benjamin Bratt, Brendan Fraser, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Reynolds.
Here’s Marisa Tomei’s: Joe Pesci, Adam Sandler, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack, Denis Leary, Mickey Rourke, John C. Reilly.
Advantage, and champion by a wide margin: Tomei.
In many ways, Marisa Tomei has the toughest role in Cyrus, because it’s the most thankless. It’s the one that pushes believability the most, and the least funny by far. She has to play it straight against two very funny actors, and to play the balance between them. Her character Molly isn’t exactly flawless, so Tomei’s job is to make that clear while still playing the dream girl to both John and Cyrus. I think it works. Her attraction to John feels honest and never forced, and her love for her son Cyrus is recognizably motherly, yet just this side of inappropriate, so you can understand her role in Cyrus’ odd behavior.
And yeah, Cyrus is pretty odd. Probably not the way you’d expect, with the casting of the sarcastic smart-ass from Superbad, Knocked Up, Funny People, and so on. Jonah Hill is really good in this role, bringing the energy down and occasionally even letting silence do the comedy for him. He underplays the role and it pays off to huge effect. You don’t notice how “off” Cyrus is at first, even though you know going into it that he’s going to be. And whatever you expect from whatever “off” means, he isn’t quite that either. I like Jonah Hill in movies, but I don’t know that I expected him to have this kind of range. The only thing that strains believability here is the idea that at some point in the past, Jonah Hill tumbled out of Marisa Tomei’s vagina, but it’s to the credit of everyone involved that I only stopped a couple times, and briefly, to scratch my head around that one.
I hadn’t seen any movies from the writer/director pair, Jay and Mark Duplass, but they really did something interesting and original here. An internet search is telling me that the Duplass brothers are part of a cinematic movement called mumblecore, which frankly sounds terrible to me just by the name alone, but if there are any other movies like Cyrus out there, consider my curiosity roused. Cyrus is a triumph of tone, a consistently funny and unpredictable comedy, and a heart-warming story about some people that any other movie would write off as creepy. That’s no easy feat.