When used wisely, John C. Reilly is a force of fucking nature.

Cyrus is an offbeat dramedy that no one saw last year. For my money, it’s a really good movie that has plenty of laughs and a big beating heart. Some probably saw it thinking it would be another wordy comedy banking on the personal brands of its two male leads, John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. The surprise is that they are both doing not only comedy (and more restrained than either is usually known for) but subtle, nuanced character work. It’s still a funny movie, like I said, but it’s also very grounded in its relationships and the human frailty of its characters.

Reilly plays John, an earnest but sad man who is suffering through a relatively amicable relationship with his ex-wife, played by Keener (who can do this in her sleep), who left him for another dude. As a result, he’s sort of stuck in this shitty place between being the nice guy and dealing with the loneliness and desperation that are never far away. At a party, a brazenly goofy display gets him noticed from an attractive woman who, seemingly too good to be true, gets to liking him. This is Molly, played to usual ridiculously awesome by Tomei (who is seriously too good all of the time). So this all seems like it’s shaping up to be a middle-aged version of your standard romantic comedy.

Then John meets Molly’s adult, live-in son Cyrus (Hill). John, for all his fucked up state of mind, is actually a fairly normal guy and reacts to Molly and Cyrus co-dependency much the same way your average audience member would if they had to deal with it. Molly is too kind-hearted and generous to appear more than simply indulgent and caught up in a certain fantasy of “me and my boy against the world”. Cyrus, on the other hand, is a lot more fucked up. His territorial control of the life he shares with his mother is his primary focus and he is so slippery, sadistic, and almost sociopathic about it that you (and John) want to smack him the fuck around. There’s also a sense that this could all spiral out of control into tragedy, violence, and loss.That sort of shift could have made for an interesting movie, sure, but Cyrus is about reforging family from broken, discarded pieces. Whether or not our characters can get over their own shit, much less each others’, is the big question.

The Duplass Brothers, who are like an indie-comic version of the Coens (though I’d say Cyrus is closer to their comic sensibilities than, say, Judd Apatow’s), are more interested in fallibility and slight derangement than they are in full-fledged psychosis or self-destruction. It’s more about a passive-aggressive cold war with immediately understandable motivations on all sides than it is about how crazy Cyrus is. Cyrus only acts crazy, he knows exactly what he’s doing and it plays like it should: a 21 year old trying to hang on to his mom when there’s a new man in her life. It’s the logical extension of every story you’ve ever heard about the young child adjusting to a new step-parent. Only, he’s 21 and intelligent and that makes it both more funny and more sophisicated.

These two have amazing chemistry. Their exchanges are the highlight of the film.

So in spite of the obvious places it could go, Cyrus remains a low-key drama where everyone is more or less a good person misled by insecurity, frustration, and broken dreams. This keeps the movie in a more or less good-natured place and also heavily relatable since the audience is forced to see Molly and Cyrus from John’s perspective. Your casual observer might look at the situation and disagree with how John reacts. To them, getting over the wrenches Cyrus throws into the relationship might seem unquestionably worthwhile for someone in John’s position. But John has to decide what he’s willing to invest after the devastation of a marriage that he still isn’t over seven years after the fact. An understanding of who John is and where he’s coming from is integral to how the movie unfolds and Reilly makes us utterly believe this guy, and in him.

But we should already know that Reilly has a performance like this in him. He is an exceptional dramatic actor and John is an echo of the lonely, earnest cop he played in Magnolia. The other cast members are very at home with this kind of material and everyone is good. It’s Jonah Hill that really surprises and impresses. I would have put money on his being able to deliver a solid dramatic performance but we haven’t seen him do one before Cyrus. Now he has shown that he has that versatility so many of the best comic actors have. He can shift between menace, emotional beats, comedy, and outright oddness at the drop of a pin and he can do it without relying on a punchline.

So the warning is clear: this is not your average comedy. You may actually find the humor few and far between since it relies heavily on subtlety and how much you find yourself in on Cyrus’s masterfully insane campaign to fuck up John’s shit. If you feel too much menace or too much crazy, you might be more inclined to feel put off. Granted that the character is supposed to be off-putting but there’s a delicate balance being attempted here by both Hill and the movie itself.

I say it pulls it off.

A fairly ideal moment. Can these people sustain it?

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