Whether or not the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, are proud of their 'mumblecoreâ?� legacy, their first two films, 2005's The Puffy Chair and 2008's Baghead, were among an onslaught of indie comedies shot on digital cameras and scripted on the fly.
Now, with Cyrus, that low-key approach to filmmaking has been given a bit of a budget to work with, not to mention some high-grade stars, and the duo manages to take a premise that begs for broad gags and instead gift it with an innate sense of characterization and a peculiar sense of humor.
John (John C. Reilly) remains a romantic wreck seven years after his separation from Jamie (Catherine Keener), and as she's about to remarry, she encourages John to get back out there. The result isn't pretty at first, as John bumbles and stumbles his way through a party. But while peeing in the bushes, he meets cute with Molly (Marisa Tomei), the one woman not only willing to save him from a lonely round of drunken karaoke ' the song is, fittingly, 'Don't You Want Meâ?� ' but eager to take him home afterward.
After a few (sober) dinners, Molly's interest remains genuine and John remains hopeful, even once he's introduced to her 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). A clingy, creepy, 'creativeâ?� type, it isn't long before Cyrus attempts to sabotage their relationship out of fear of no longer being Molly's main man.
It's an awkward love triangle, to say the least, and a premise ripe for typical sitcom execution (at best, this could've been another Step Brothers; at worst, the second coming of Mr. Woodcock), but the Duplasses don't take the easy way out. John, Molly and Cyrus are equally dysfunctional characters, dependent enough on one another to take amusingly desperate measures to preserve their own happiness. (Just when we think John might be too much of a loveable loser, we see that he's essentially intruding into the life of Jamie and her new beau as well.)
Reilly strikes a rare balance between his aw-shucks, loser-in-love demeanor and the exaggerated temper that has defined his career. Before falling to the background as primarily an object of desire, Tomei fleshes out single-mom Molly as a person who's tried to do right by her son but needs a man of her own.
Critically, Hill delivers precise instability. Just when his conniving ways seem too cartoonish, he displays a slight shade of vulnerability to remind us that his character wasn't exactly raised to know any better when it comes to a paradigm shift like this one.
While the Duplasses bring out solid performances all around, their sense of visual punctuation often gets the better of their jokes. Their ever-roving camera is meant to evoke a sense of immediacy, but their reaction-shot zoom technique proves to be a crutch for many of the punchline moments. At one point, a late-night back-and-forth between John and Cyrus plays out well with an alternating series of head shots before capping off with a wide shot of Cyrus standing nearly naked and wielding a knife. That restraint would've been welcome throughout.
Cyrus ends abruptly, as all indies must, with a cut-to-black where a crane shot would normally do, but it gives its audience hope either way for both the characters on screen and those off-camera relationships responsible for valuing character over convention in comedy.