Ken vs. Cyrus


John’s got a problem: ever since his wife left him seven years ago, his life has been one long, slow spiral into the gutter. He’s functional and continues to work, but that’s about all that can be said for him. So when his ex (Catherine Keener, whose presence always improves a movie’s charisma) invites him to her engagement party with the stated purpose of meeting women, he accepts. Grudgingly. His pick-up technique involves long, intense spiels about the hopelessness of his life and how finding someone to connect with may be the only thing that can save him. If there’s one thing John (played by John C. Reilly) is incapable of doing, it’s filtering his feelings.

Which is what draws Molly (Marisa Tomei) to John, played with beautiful restraint by John C. Reilly. They hit it off at the party despite his drunken state and kick off one of those intense left-field romances where everything clicks and you want to spend every waking moment with this wonderful new stranger in your life. The catch? Molly never stays the night, and is reluctant to share anything about her life.

The reason is Cyrus (Jonah Hill), her 21-year-old son, who still lives at home and seems perfectly content to spend the rest of his life with his mother. If sexless incest is a thing, then that’s what Molly and Cyrus have: a relationship through which they try to fulfill all or most of their emotional needs without much contact with the outside world. When John enters theirs, Cyrus feels threatened, and a minor showdown of epic proportions begins.

Cyrus treads a fine line for a comedy, wavering between laugh-out-loud duels between Cyrus and John and sincerely sweet soul-baring moments. In lesser hands this would be tiresome material, and I could very well see myself twiddling my thumbs through those soul-baring moments to get to the yuks. But lo, everyone is just so gosh darn likable and authentic that I ended up caring about them. It’s not so much that I know these people. It’s just that I believe them.

A lot of that’s to do with Reilly and Hill, whose duel for Molly’s affections so often takes the slow-burning path over the explosive one. Reilly is an immensely talented performer, able to convey so much while coming off as nothing more than a likable schlub. I was reminded of his performance in The Promotion, a quiet little comedy about quiet little men whose customer-service-uber-alles mentalities were the only things keeping smiles on their faces while they hurtled toward unavoidable confrontation. Reilly frequently takes absurdist comedic roles, but the man has a gift for the low key. One he doesn’t explore often enough.

He’s matched by Hill, who speaks with great kindness and politeness throughout the movie’s first half … and who clearly doesn’t mean a word of it. His Cyrus is clearly smart and mature, but there’s something off about him all the same: His congeniality masks a sinister intelligence and mountains of insecurity. Tomei has less to do with her part, but what she does give—a warm and genuinely loving presence stunted by years of emotional isolation with her son—she does effortlessly.

Cyrus really is a very simple movie, completely beholden to relationship dynamics both loud and subtle. There are perhaps ten sets, with only a handful that dominate, and three actors who occupy something like 80% of the running time. But for the heavy reliance on subtle gestures and glances, Cyrus could be a stage play. And a marvelous one at that.

A comment on the digital camera techniques of writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass. Cyrus is filmed in digital with a pervasive use of snap-zooms to focus on actors, gestures and bits of scenery throughout. This is jarring at first, and seemingly at odds with digital’s main virtue: The purpose of digital is to remove the staginess from film—to remove excess cuts and give an overall more “natural” feel, as if we’re peeking in on actual events. (That sensation is artificial, but hey, moviemaking is about lying in creative new ways.)

So why the snap-zooms? The digital says “slice of life,” the zooms say “hey, check out our camera work!” But after awhile, I got it: each quick-zoom was a re-framing, taking a scene and drawing attention to glances, movements and setting in a scene. I thought of polyptych paintings, or of how some comic book artists draw a full scene and then frame panels throughout it to guide the eye and tell a story within a single shot. It’s a hell of a thing to pull off well, and the Duplass brothers do. In that, Cyrus’s form and function are one.

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