Mumblecore goes mainstream: Setting up what would have otherwise have been a schticky rom-com premise, Jay and Mark Duplass infuse their dysfunctional mom-boyfriend-son love triangle with a generous amount of empathy and spirit. The result is a mostly acerbic, surprisingly engaging comedy that's filled with emotionally generous performances.
Seven years after his divorce, film editor John (John C. Reilly) is still a wreck. Hidden away in his featureless apartment, he has all but given up on social interactions. Prompted by his ex (a mostly wasted Catherine Keener) to attend a hip party, he fumbles his way through one clumsy interaction after another. Then he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), who not only saves him from an embarrassing bout of drunken karaoke, but shows genuine interest in him. Holy crap! John can't believe his luck; after a few promising dinners, he meets Molly's 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Unfortunately, mom and son have developed an unhealthy relationship based on profound and mutual separation anxieties. Worse, Cyrus is conniving and jealous, hell-bent on stealthily sabotaging John's newfound chance at romance.
This isn't exactly ground-breaking stuff, but the Duplass' improvisational approach softens the contrivances of their script, letting Reilly, Hill and Tomei thrive in their roles. Unfortunately, by utilizing sudden verité zooms to heighten tension, intimacy and emotion, the brothers also draw attention to their direction. Their trademark faux-doc affectations come off as self-conscious here, a low-budget pose that is willfully ragged and "off-the-cuff." It's an intrusion that undermines the film's more painfully honest moments. But only slightly. Cyrus is blessed with a cast that's often given the room to flesh out its characters, adding meaningful reactions, nuances, and empathy. With a desperate mix of wit, charm and woundedness, the Duplass brothers sidestep cliché and sentimentalism, and instead translate the pain of awkwardness and longing into something wholly relatable. As calculatedly quirky as their characters are, we are drawn into their hopes, fears and off-kilter pathologies.
Of course, given the pedestrian nature of its underlying story, Cyrus peaks early, trading deeper exploration of its characters for standard-issue plot mechanics and a too-easy conclusion. There are hints that the story could veer into darker territory but the Duplasses flinch and the ending, while appropriately modest, still feels like a cop-out.
What keeps it afloat is the rapport between Hill and Reilly. The two actors balance their seething expressions of resentment against real moments of vulnerability. It's a terrific see-saw of comedy and conflict made all the more unpredictable by Hill's crafty and creepy performance. Unstable but disturbingly precise, Cyrus is a brilliant creation, a passive-aggressive monster with real fears and insecurities, which Hill makes wholly believable. Reilly, for his part, is in familiar territory as the lovable sad-sack, but he brings an uneasy sense of truth and desperation to the leading man role. Similarly, Tomei proves once again that she's more than just gorgeous eye-candy, giving soul and understanding to the script's thinly drawn and inconsistent Molly. In a lesser actress' hands the character would be a frustrating doormat. Here, she's all-too aware of her codependent shortcomings but lacks the tools to completely break free.
When Cyrus is good, you marvel at what the Duplasses and their cast have pulled off. When it stumbles, its limitations are all too obvious. Ultimately, what sets the film apart from so many other romantic comedies is its ability to embrace and empathize with its highly neurotic characters. If only it had made a little more effort to understand them.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.