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Mommy dearest

Slapstick stars keep it dark in Cyrus

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By my rough count, there can't be more than eight speaking roles in Cyrus, including three women from the movie's second scene who are never heard from again and an inconsequential secondary character who hovers in the background. What we're left with is a tiny four-person ensemble film that looks and sounds a lot like the dialogue-heavy home movies of a stranger.

Everything about Cyrus feels fragile. Even though it's far from a thriller, I found myself on edge through large portions of the film, worried that such a small fabric of actors and settings wouldn't be able to maintain dramatic charm, even for a relatively short 90 minutes. It's strange to watch a film and feel like you are holding your breath. Then again, Cyrus is a very dark comedy starring two actors known for their slapstick roles. The fear that the film will tumble from its tightrope is a legitimate concern.

Those concerns are only heightened in a character-driven movie like this, where one over-the-top scene or even a single flat joke can cause a disastrous domino effect. Even a combined six Oscar nominations among the film's four players guarantees nothing. And while "delicate" may be an odd word to describe anything involving Jonah Hill, here it is more than apt.

Karaoke works better with a microphone.
  • Karaoke works better with a microphone.

Hill plays the eponymous Cyrus, an emotionally needy 21-year-old man-child who still lives with his single mother, Molly (Marisa Tomei). Their relationship is unusual on a number of levels, each one a bit more uncomfortable than the next. By the time it's established that Cyrus addresses Molly by her real name, that mother and son take daily play dates to the park and that they see nothing odd about wrestling together in public, we are hardly surprised when Cyrus nonchalantly enters the bathroom while Mom is in the shower.

But John—Molly's new love interest—is very surprised. A 40-something, semi-employed, self-deprecating loner, John (John C. Reilly) meets Molly at a party after being dragged there by his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) and her fiancé. Yes, seven years after their divorce, John's closest friend and confidant remains his former wife.

A small suspension of reality is required here if we are to believe that this relationship evolves into more than a one-night stand, and that Molly fails to see red flags when John follows her home on day three. But the combination of the self-described "Shrek" and the doting mother does make for a cute couple, and the stalking is what leads to the first meeting between Cyrus and John.

The relationship between eager boyfriend and over-protective son unfolds like a scene out of a nature show: two alpha males circling each other as they try to figure out the other's next move. We get to see a nice new side to Hill in his first real semi-serious role, and his early conversations with John ooze with subtle sarcasm. John is pretty sure—but not certain—that Cyrus is screwing with him. That uncertainty prevents John from telling Molly his suspicions, but doesn't prevent Cyrus from stealing shoes, faking panic attacks during intimate moments and playing his mother and her boyfriend against each other. Both actors deserve applause here for reeling in their large personalities. Their restraint is one of the film's great strengths.

Reilly is nearly perfect playing a needy man who must keep his guard up. This isn't Reilly's first serious role (he played serious smaller roles in 2005's Dark Water and 2004's The Aviator) but it's the first time in a while that he hasn't played Will Ferrell's sidekick or a similar slapstick character like Dewey Cox in Walk Hard. It's a welcome change. Reilly's facial expressions as he sizes up Cyrus are as good as any of his dialogue.

The film's style is amateurish by design. The majority of the scenes are shot with a shaky hand-held camera with quick cuts and grainier-than-normal footage. It adds a layer of intimacy that works well in a film where half of the dialogue seems to take place on couches and in beds. My ultra-hip friends tell me that the word for what I'm describing is "mumblecore." I won't pretend to have ever heard the term before last week, but it denotes a genre of independent films known for their quickly filmed, low-budget, character-driven dramas that often star no-name actors and are set in the director's apartment. Last year's Humpday and 2002's Funny Ha Ha are the two often-cited examples.

There's bound to be a backlash now that big stars like Hill, Tomei and Reilly have infiltrated the subculture. So be it. The movie stands on its own—no matter what the label. If mumblecore is to go mainstream, let Cyrus lead the way.

Cyrus continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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