Cyrus: The Year's Scariest Romantic Comedy

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Chuck Zlotnick / Fox Searchlight

John C. Reilly and Jonah Hil in Cyrus

In Cyrus, the scariest romantic comedy of the year, drunk, depressed John (John C. Reilly), is urinating in the bushes outside a party when he first encounters Molly (Marisa Tomei). "Nice penis," she says, archly. On this evening three women have already repelled his clumsy advances, ("I'm in a tailspin," he confesses to one, before insisting gamely that he is nonetheless capable of being a blast.) Molly tells him she overheard the tailspin speech and found it raw and compelling. Not only is this the kindest feminine appraisal he's had in years, she actually seems interested. "This is insane," he mumbles in delighted protest. "I'm like Shrek."

John can't believe his good fortune. But naturally, there's a catch. Molly has a son stashed at home. Not some whiny toddler or anxious pre-teen who doesn't want a stepfather, but a beyond-full grown man, Cyrus — a 21 year-old played with horrifying intensity by Jonah Hill. Cyrus appears to be unemployed and Molly, an advocate of home schooling, doesn't seem to be pushing him to get a job. Plus, he has his music. Listening to Cyrus's instrumental dreck, John says, encouragingly, "Sounds like Steve Miller." (Reilly is masterful in conveying John's eager awkwardness.) "No it doesn't," Cyrus says flatly.

For his first take-me-seriously role, Hill has borrowed his Superbad co-star Michael Cera's nerdy close-cropped hairdo, as well as his silent, observational stare. When Cera does it, there's the sense that he's about to say something witheringly witty; when Hill wears the stare, we expect Cyrus to plunge a butcher knife into John's back. Even though he tends more to passive-aggressive — John's sneakers go missing the first night he stays over at Molly's — this feeling never quite fades. The film has its roots in the sleepy, chatty films of the Mumblecore movement, where its writer/directors, Jay and Mark Duplass made their mark; but Cyrus is genuinely suspenseful.

The Duplass brothers' 2005 joint effort, The Puffy Chair, a sharp-eyed tale of a believably doomed relationship, established their interest in the cinema of romantic discomfort. They have an ear for painfully realistic situations and dialogue that yields unforced, low-key comedy. Mark Duplass, who played the lead in Puffy, also appeared in Greenberg, where Ben Stiller dialed down his own comedy to surprising effect. There are similarities between that movie and this one, but whereas Greenberg was a creep, Hill's Cyrus is truly creepy. When he calls his youthful mother Molly instead of Mom, it sounds like incest. The Duplass brothers have shot Hill with brutal honesty, stripped him of the flattering cinematography he gets in more traditional Hollywood comedies. He's not just a psychic roadblock between Molly and John, he's a physical one, a fat one. (Watching this talented actor, who has two movies out this month, brings to mind Gabourey Sidibe. During Oscar season, pop culture pundits wondered aloud how likely it would be for her to find more work after her Oscar-nominated turn in Precious. Has anyone ever said that about Hill?)

John is like the amiable dope in a horror flick; we want to tell him to get the hell out of there. But Molly is lovely — Tomei expertly keeps the character's zaniness in check and lets us see her compassion and maturity in the face of considerable obstacles — and we understand why John is loath to give her up. The threat of a knife in his back, literal or otherwise, is half the fun of Cyrus, but its greater point is to reveal the similarities between Cyrus and John. In the beginning of the relationship, Molly leaves John's bed twice in the middle of the night without offering an explanation — she's not prepared to share the burden of Cyrus, understandably — and John's solution is to follow her home and park out front until he gets some answers. Normal people call this stalking.

Like Cyrus, John is a big kid who needs to grow up. A mid-40s freelance editor, he's been mourning his divorce from Jamie (Catherine Keener) for seven years. Their relationship has evolved into unhealthy co-dependency. Just as Cyrus commands Molly's attention whenever he has a night terror, John rushes to Jamie for romantic advice. She patiently provides it, even participating in a ruse to check out Molly and Cyrus and assess if their weirdness is past the tipping point. John, for his part, treats Jamie's fiancé Tim (Matt Walsh) as an annoying intruder into his John and Jamie-time. In Tim's exasperation we see the reflection of John's attitude toward Cyrus. This engaging, provocative little movie is a reminder that sometimes the person that scares you most is the person most like you.