Thoughts on… Cyrus (2010)

Cyrus, 2010.

Directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass.
Starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei and Catherine Keener.


A likeable loser gets more than he bargained for when he meets the woman of his dreams and discovers the other man in her life – her 21-year-old son.

I was never able to see any of the ‘mumblecore’ movement from which the Duplass brothers emerged, but my limited knowledge informs me that their latest film, Cyrus, has not strayed too far from its central themes and aesthetics, of character-centric narratives and documentary stylistics. Indeed, visually mimicking the documentary genre somewhat camouflages these films’ miniscule budgets, yet it also allows for the story to linger in the everyday; where nothing much happens, but then again, everything does.

We follow John (John C. Reilly), still suffering the fallout from a failed marriage to Jamie (Catherine Keener) seven years ago. They still work together in production, he an editor, she seems a little higher up, and have maintained their friendship. The film opens with Jamie’s news of remarriage, whilst John remains tangled in a web of masturbation and microwave meals.

John begins to free himself from this net when he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei). She is sexy and cute and fun and clasps her sleeves in her hands, as all shy and damaged girls should. For she has a son, the mollycoddled mess Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who is “almost 22 years-old” – a rather childish way to declare one’s age, akin to 4 ½ or 9 ¾. Cyrus is either harmlessly, but seriously, weird, or maliciously possessive. Much of the film is John’s neurotic attempts to figure out which. Cyrus is not narratively driven, and it is its monotony that bestows upon it its great effect.

The war of manipulations between John and Cyrus provides the real core of the film. This is not to say that John and Molly’s romance isn’t enticing or believable (John C. Reilly with Marisa Tomei?), because the film effectively conveys how happy the two make each other, but that the Cyrus dynamic complicates this rather worn plot to feel fresh, finely observed and, well, real.

This reality is accentuated by the Duplass’ preference for a documentary style. The camera is often shaky and indiscreet, whipping between characters to colour their ordinary lives with emphasis and speed. This sometimes becomes too much, like action-onomatopoeias in golden-age comic books – kablazamo – which work in those contexts but tend to protrude in naturalistic scenes of characters simply sitting in a living room. But then again, I find crash zooms obtrusive in 24.

It does, however, make the film feel responsive and heightens its sense of reality. When it works, one ceases to recognise those onscreen as characters, protagonists, deus ex machinas and supporting roles, but as subjects, like a perverse, anthropology documentary. John, Cyrus, Molly, et al are merely antelopes at a watering hole, or organisms in a Petri dish, separate from us, trapped as they are inside the filmic lens. We watch with fascination as these familiar beasts battle with each other.

But Cyrus is not invincible, undone as he is by a singular mistake. Although his stare teeters on the edge of hostility, there is fragility in his eyes when they blink and suddenly cast themselves downwards. All of John’s paranoia over Cyrus stems from an incident with his trainers, where they suddenly disappeared after his first night at Molly’s house. This is what ignites John’s suspicion, alerting him to the potential menace behind Cyrus’ oddball stares. Later, when Cyrus is exposed, he begins to spiral downwards, as though this simple detection has caused him to unravel, his demise brought about by a single loose thread.

Cyrus works so effectively because its emotions of paranoia in a relationship, when you feel more needy than the recipient of your love, and the immature possessiveness it incites, are so universal. That heartbreaking recognition of change, when the object of your affection no longer feels as much as they used to, resonates through John and Cyrus, and undoubtedly through every spectator watching who has ever known unrequited love.

Oli Davis

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