Think of “Cyrus” as the Duplasses for the masses, as the keenly observant sibs upgrade their scrappy, relationship-based formula to work with movie stars and a Fox Searchlight-size budget without sacrificing the raw, naturalistic feel of their first two features, “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead.” The duo’s latest study in interpersonal awkwardness takes its name from the only obstacle blocking a budding relationship between single-again fortysomethings John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei: Cyrus (a hilarious Jonah Hill), the co-dependent son unwilling to share his mother’s attention. Expect this modest yet eminently commercial comedy to score the brothers more studio work.
Above all, this project allows Mark and Jay Duplass, masters of the embarrassing moment, to enlist A-list actors for their improv-based style; the co-directors provided their cast a rough script which the thesps are freely encouraged to personalize on camera. Though Reilly and Hill are no strangers to off-the-cuff comedy, ad-libbing for directors such as Judd Apatow and Adam McKay, the fact that “Cyrus” offers only the thinnest strand of a plot allows the Duplasses to be more focused in their direction.
From the opening scene, in which Jamie (Catherine Keener) walks in to find her ex-husband, John (Reilly), in a compromising position, to the constant string of surprises surrounding Cyrus’ character, there’s something refreshingly universal about the situations represented here.
In many ways, the success of a Duplass film is measured not in laughter, but by how much the audience winces through scenes of uncomfortable recognition. The helmers specialize in passive-aggressive behavior, unlocking truths long absent from scripted comedy simply by allowing their higher-def Red cameras to linger in closeup on how characters react to certain situations (too frequently ruptured by focal adjustments and mini-zooms that give everything a certain pseudo-amateur homemovie feel).
Cyrus enters the picture not long after a memorable meet-cute between John and Molly (Tomei), and the fully grown kid is the very embodiment of festering resentment. Tomei’s character requires that she remain oblivious to her son’s manipulations, but Reilly and Hill are free to cut loose, and the results are wonderfully unpredictable.
At first, John doesn’t know what to make of Cyrus, though various clues indicate that the 21-year-old enjoys a highly unusual mother-son relationship. A photo in Molly’s bedroom shows her breast-feeding Cyrus well past weaning age, and several early scenes tease the squirmy possibility of incest. The fact is, we don’t know what their deal is, and though John never seems to be in physical danger, the well-calibrated suspense such ambiguity generates isn’t so different from that of a horror movie.
What makes these Duplassian experiments work is the way their characters are willing to share their feelings. At the end of the day, these guys are mushy sentimentalists (as evidenced by a succession of heart-to-heart conversations between every possible pairing of John, Molly and Cyrus), which means “Cyrus” promises a confrontation it can’t possibly deliver.
Still, it’s Hill’s movie to steal. With his sad-sack posture and chilly glare, Cyrus looks like one of those Aardman creations whose every blink earns a chuckle. The film’s semi-scripted approach may deprive the character of catchphrases, but auds won’t be forgetting him anytime soon.