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by on June 30, 2010
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I don’t really know what to call “Cyrus.” From the presence of Jonah Hill as the title character, most people will probably take it as a comedy. But the humor is so dark and the mood so frequently unnerving that you don’t much feel like laughing.

What I did feel was fully engaged, and enjoyment at drinking in some wonderful performances by Hill, Marisa Tomei and especially John C. Reilly. It’s a movie that’s not trying to provoke a reaction from the audience, but simply observes a small set of characters with sharp focus and a wry wit.

Reilly plays John, a sad sack who’s finally pulled out of the tailspin since his divorce by starting a relationship with Molly (Tomei), a single mother to 21-year-old Cyrus (Hill), who’s still living at home and doesn’t show any inclinations about changing this fact. Cyrus sabotages their relationship, subtly at first but with increasing venom.

One scene sums up my reaction to this film. John has begun sleeping over at Molly’s, which Cyrus accepts with a veneer of friendliness but clearly doesn’t like. In the middle of the night, John gets up to find Cyrus standing in the kitchen nude from the waist down and holding a butcher knife. “C’mere,” he says with a glazed stare, motioning with the huge knife.

I’ll save you the trouble by letting you know “Cyrus” does not veer into slasher flick territory. But the sensation one gets in that moment — nervous laughter that morphs quickly into fear and then melts into a profound discomfort — is strangely enjoyable.

“Cyrus” is written and directed by sibling duo Jay and Mark Duplass (“Baghead”), part of the “mumblecore” indie movement. The dialogue has an ungroomed, improvisational feel, and the trio of stars give naturalistic performances without an ounce of ego.

Reilly, who’s done a lot of lunkhead comedies lately but has shown serious acting chops in the past, certainly doesn’t seem to have any vanity in his role. When we first see John, his ex-wife (Catherine Kenner) catches him masturbating in his slovenly wreck of a home.

She reveals that she and her boyfriend (Matt Walsh) are going to get married, which crushes him despite the seven years since they parted. To cheer him up, they invite John to a party where he gets stupendously drunk, and even the homely girl sitting alone on the couch blows him off.

Molly, however, overhears his moment of total vulnerability and is touched. Soon they’re an item, but John quickly senses something wrong about her relationship with her son. Cyrus calls her Molly instead of mother, and they spend hours every day together wrapped in a cocoon of co-dependency.

Cyrus deeply resents any division of Molly’s affections with another — she tellingly reveals she hasn’t had a serious relationship since Cyrus was born — and sets about to use himself as a wedge between them.

In essence, John has walked into the middle of an Oedipal complex, with him taking on the role of the guy about to get whacked.

Hill is terrific, and what’s most striking about it is that it isn’t all that different from what he does in his comedic roles. He’s become a master of the deadpan stare where he says seemingly benevolent things, but in a cutting way. His Cyrus is a sweet-faced emotional terrorist.

I really liked Reilly in this. He starts out as such a pathetic figure, we practically cringe for him. But he slowly gets his baggage together, and has enough self-respect to fight back against Cyrus’ manipulations.

Tomei’s role is a bit under-realized — Molly acts as a vessel into which these two flawed men pour their emotions, good and bad. I kept wishing she would take a proactive role, and kick both of them out.

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