Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/25/10 14:08:16

"Oedipus Wrecks"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Cyrus” is one of the more peculiar movies to come around the bend in a while. It is a low-key dark comedy that starts off strongly, contains a game cast and some big laughs and then just sort of stops in its tracks just before the commencement of the final act and just sort of peters out instead of bringing everything together. And yet, despite the frustrations of the final scenes and the sense that the screenplay could have used at least one more pass before the commencement of principal photography, I can’t say that it ever left me with a sense of disinterest--even when it was just sitting there and spinning its wheels, it still managed to keep my interest and keep me holding that it would eventually right itself in time.

John C. Reilly stars as John, an average schlub who has descended into a spiral of loneliness and self-pity since his divorce from former wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) a few years earlier--so thoroughly has his life stopped since then that she is apparently the closest thing he has to a friend. One night, she and her fiancee (Matt Walsh) convince him to get out of his house and go to a party with them and it is there that he meets the beautiful and surprisingly available Molly (Marisa Tomei). Although he does practically everything in the book to ensure that she will never want to speak to him again, John somehow manages to charm Molly and they become a couple almost instantly. The only problem is that Molly seems strangely secretive about her private life--she refuses to spend the night at John’s place or to invite him to her own home--and so after she leaves his house one day, he follows her home and when he comes by the next day, he is confronted by her heretofore unknown 21-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), an oddball who still lives with the doting Molly and who makes a living as the composer of exceptionally unlistenable New Age music. After first, everything seems fine but John soon begins to pick up weird little signals from Cyrus that he isn’t especially welcome but everyone just assumes that it is all in his head. As it turns out, John is completely correct--Cyrus is actually a malevolent, possessive and pathologically jealous little creep who wants Molly’s attention all for himself and will go the any and all lengths to prevent any potential suitor from coming between them. For once, John refuses to give up and this begins an under-the-radar battle royale between the two with Molly as the unsuspecting prize.

“Cyrus” was written and directed by mumblecore mavens Mark and Jay Duplass, making their first tentative move into the big leagues after making a name for themselves on the indie circuit with “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead.” Having not been a fan of mumblecore in general or their earlier works in particular, I didn’t go into “Cyrus” with the greatest expectations and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a distinct improvement over their previous efforts and not just because there was no Greta Gerwig on display to offend the senses. Unlike their earlier works, which often felt like collections of unsuccessful improve exercises staged in borrowed apartments and captures with all the visual élan of an imperfectly mounted security camera, I was happy to see that this actually felt like a project in which the story and the characters were developed and fleshed out before the cameras started rolling so that it didn’t have a haphazard and slapdash feel. They also manage to get better performances from their actors this time around--granted, it would seem to be impossible not to get smart, spiky work with a quartet of talents like Reilly, Hill, Tomei and Keener sparking off of each other but they all do a fine job of scoring big laughs while keeping the material grounded in reality instead of letting it spin off into the kind of ridiculously raucous comedy that it might have degenerated into in the hands of others. Reilly, in fact, delivers his best performance in years and Hill, best known for his over-the-top work in things like “Superbad,” shows that he is capable of showing a quieter and subtler side as well when given a chance.

When “Cyrus” is good, it is really good and as a result, it hurts all the more when it eventually does stumble. Essentially, there are two fundamental flaws with the screenplay and while they don’t complete ruin the movie, they do prevent a good movie from becoming a really good or even a great one. The big problem is that while the screenplay does a great job of setting up and establishing its premise, it doesn’t seem to have any real idea of how to bring it to a conclusion--there are hints throughout that it might begin to drift into some truly dark and discomforting waters and while it doesn’t do that, it doesn’t do much of anything else either. To be fair, the conclusion on display isn’t that bad--it respects what has gone before and doesn’t spiral out of control into outright silliness or implausibility--but it just feels as though it is missing some key element that might have done a better job of pulling things together. The other problem is that while the screenplay offers complex and fully developed characters to Reilly and Hill, the one played by Marisa Tomei seems more like a contrivance at times--her behavior is strangely inconsistent at times and the script raises several interesting questions about her relationship with her son (such as his nonchalant manner of entering the bathroom while she is showering) and then never follows up on any of them. Tomei does what she can but her character is the weak link in this particular triangle and the film as a whole suffers for it.

These problems hurt “Cyrus” but not enough to ruin it because even at its lowest points, it is at least trying to provide viewers with a comedy that is different from the cookie-cutter concoctions that they have been subjected to as of late--I would take its lamest passages over the whole of something like “Grown Ups” in a heartbeat. And as attempts to move mumblecore into the mainstream with a story of a oddball schnook whose life becomes confusing when a beautiful woman more or less throws herself at him go, it beats “Greenberg” like a gong. I guess what I am saying is that you should definitely give “Cyrus” a chance--just don’t go to see it on a first date and don’t go to see it with your mother--trust me on this.

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