Cyrus is the kind of independent movie that makes me love independent movies, so it might seem paradoxical that I don’t want to write this review. I just want to tell you to go directly to your nearest theater and see it, without knowing anything about it beforehand. But I do have to write something, so as much as possible, I will eschew plot summary, and only endeavor to persuade you to go see it, right away.
Cyrus is made by the Brothers Duplass (Mark and Jay), who have climbed into Hollywood by way of the Mumblecore trapdoor. The Duplasses made their name with their first two features, Puffy Chair and Baghead, but they’ve matured with incredible speed, and Cyrus is a big step up.
A love triangle such as you’ve never seen before, Cyrus is the story of John, a shambling mess of a man (John C. Reilly) who describes himself as “like Shrek,” Molly, the lovely woman who accepts him as he is (Marissa Tomei), and Cyrus, the twenty-one-year-old son (Jonah Hill) who still lives with her.
Those are capsule character descriptions, and as such, they are wholly inaccurate. For this movie is all about character, and the ways character can manifest and change, all in an instant. You would think this movie was a thriller, the way it places you on alert. The tone is so wobbly (which is not to say inconsistent, or uncontrolled) that from moment to moment, scene to scene, I literally had no idea what was going to happen next. It made me realize how formulaic almost all scripts are. They follow the three-act or five-act rules and the audience obediently holds on for the predictable ride.
Instead, Cyrus has the uncertainty of real life. In part that’s due to the Duplass’s improvisational approach, but it’s also a reflection of how very character-centered the movie is. We follow the characters and their trajectories, which is a very different thing from following characters and their plot.
So it’s a very lucky thing that all three actors in Cyrus turn in such superb work, playing their complex roles with great sensitivity and courage. These are big leading man roles for John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, both of whom are usually called upon to play characters that are more or less cartoonish, and both take full advantage of the opportunity, delving in deep. Marissa Tomei’s role, as the woman in the middle, is a harder balancing act, but she imbues Molly with soul and something else—a certain unknowable and untouchable facet that lifts her above the fray.
All three play highly flawed and imperfect people. But the very course of the movie makes you question just how true that description is. Some—maybe many—might think John, Molly and Cyrus freaks. But what they really are is people who don’t exactly conform to societal norms.
John, for instance, still pines for his ex-wife, although it’s been seven years since they separated. Is that weird, or is it weirder the way we discard and slough off relationships—from Facebook unfriending to divorce—with such casual callousness in this day and age?
Molly and Cyrus spend most of their time together. They live together and compose and play music together and take long walks in the park every day to work on photography projects together. She raised him herself, homeschooled him, nursed him into toddlerhood, and still comforts him when he suffers night terrors. Their relationship, is frankly, strangely close—at least to our eyes.
But the joke isn’t on them. The movie never mocks Molly and Cyrus, and never veers into caricature or snark. The humor comes instead from our own unease with intimacy, need and vulnerability, from the shocking recognition of our own conventionality, and the ways we implicitly accept, wholesale, our society’s mores for the acceptable shapes of love.
What this movie really asks is whether you can wear your heart on your sleeve in this world. Can you go through life being exactly who you are, without defenses, without fronting? In a world that demands success and cool, is it enough to just be decent? Is it possible to live without judgment, with only kindness and honesty?
I liked Cyrus a lot walking out of the theater—I was stunned, actually, but in the week since it’s grown on me even more. When a film is marketed as “heart-warming” I expect manipulation and hokum. Cyrus is marketed as a comedy. And it is, hysterically, funny. But it also does something quite profound to your heart, without a false or soppy note. It’s a film of unusual integrity, deeply funny and deeply moving, and definitely one of my favorites of the season.
Now, please, go see it already.