George Castanza’s Dream Comes True in Cyrus

A couple of years ago, watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I was seriously offended on behalf of Marisa Tomei for her having to participate in some fairly explicit sex scenes. The problem wasn’t Tomei, who looks more devastating than ever in her 40s. The problem was that she was in bed with the last actor on earth who should be seen unclothed (even a little bit): Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though Hoffman was great as always, the physical disconnect between them made it impossible to suspend disbelief… she was acting all turned on by him, and man, that was some acting.

Now, three years later, here is Tomei cast as a “sex angel” to the lumpish, skeevy John C. Reilly in Cyrus. She hasn’t had a relationship in years, the movie would have us believe, but she’s attracted to Reilly. Uh-huh, as my father used to say when something or someone was full of shit. To add insult to injury, Tomei also plays the mother of the spectacularly bloated and unattractive Jonah Hill. The unlikelihood of either of these gentlemen getting anywhere near a woman like Marisa Tomei isn’t the main problem with Cyrus, but it was the one that irritated me the most.

Reilly plays John, a film editor who has been divorced for several years and lives alone in a messy apartment, eating junk food and staring at his computer screen. As with the heroes of so many of today’s slacker movies, whether mumblecore or not, John is a slovenly loser with no looks, physique, hygiene, money or career prospects… and who yet manages to have giddy, happy sex with a hot woman who responds to his sincerity, or basic decency, or something. Cyrus opens with John’s unbelievably non-acrimonious ex-wife Jamie interrupting him in the middle of masturbation; later he meets Tomei while peeing in some bushes. Are these the sorts of moments that bring hot women into a man’s life? Only in the minds of male screenwriters who have spent way too much time staring at their computer screens.

So John and Tomei’s Molly hook up, and things are going great until he meets her son Cyrus. Fat and beady-eyed, Cyrus is an antisocial lout who has an unhealthy Oedipal obsession with his mom and no intention of sharing her with a boyfriend. (Hill, by the way, looks more like the child of Danny DeVito’s Penguin than that of Marisa Tomei, but let it go.) The first third of the movie is standard comedy-of-social-awkwardness as this situation is set up, but as John moves closer, and eventually into Molly’s house, Cyrus begins a passive-aggressive campaign to break up the relationship. For a while, with the handheld camera moving through the bluish darkened rooms of the house, it’s like a horror movie, and you half expect Cyrus to pop out with a knife like Norman Bates. Then for the last third, the movie makes another shift in tone, and goes all soft and sensitive as we see how much Cyrus is hurting, and he and John forge a tentative reconciliation.

This is one shift too many for the audience, whom I felt were ready for something darker and edgier. There are suggestions of an incestuous relationship between Cyrus and Molly — she spends the night in his bed when he’s upset, he uses the bathroom while she’s showering, etc. But these scenes don’t go anywhere, and Molly is ultimately portrayed as a sane, sweet earth mother who has evidently played no part in making her son a borderline psychopath. Like Mildred Pierce, her only sin is loving her child so much that she’s blind to what a monster she’s created. Or hasn’t created. Again, these are screenwriter contrivances — everything that happens in the movie is for an immediate effect and has no grounding in psychological truth.

The performers are left to make the movie work, and it must be said that Reilly almost pulls it off. He’s a very likable actor, maybe because of the glints of suffering in the little raisin eyes set too close together in his doughy face. We’re with him all the way, and when Cyrus begins his campaign of lying and manipulation, we want John to come up with some clever strategies to beat the little bastard at his own game. But although the movie makes a couple of feints in this direction, evidently the writer/directors Mark and Jay Duplass aren’t up to writing a battle of wits. In fact, much of the movie was improvised by the performers, and several scenes have that repetitive, vamping tediousness that improvisation gets when there’s no inspiration behind it.

Catherine Keener fares particularly badly — she has now officially tilted her head, squinted compassionately and laughed unexpectedly in one too many movies. She plays Jamie, the ex who dumped John several years previously, but still hangs around solicitously, trying to get him to socialize and find happiness in a new relationship. Uh-huh. Cyrus is like a loser’s daydream in which he doesn’t have to change a thing about himself: everybody loves him anyway. Even Marisa Tomei.

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