(Reviewed June 23, 2010)
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Cyrus, by Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead), is an attempt to give a bit of an artistic edge to one of Hollywood's most successful commercial genres of recent years, the slacker comedy. It doesn't work. Though intermittently funny and provocative in its set-up, the brothers Duplass don't bother following through with the latter. Designed as a meditation on the fantasies of lonely men who are or seem to themselves to be for some reason shut out of normal sexual relations with women, the movie draws back from this fantasizing into a fantasy of its own in which social and sexual dysfunction prove to be no big deal after all and are given a facile commercial resolution. The trouble is that the rather troubling outlines of the picture's mise-en-sc ne are still visible through the bland conventionality into which it eventually sinks.
This retreat from its own edginess is summed up in the opening scene in which Jamie (Catherine Keener) is found knocking on the door of her ex-husband, John (John C. Reilly). Getting no answer, she enters through the unlocked door and finds John lying prone on his bed with his pants around his ankles and a pair of headphones clamped to his ears. His denials that he is doing what she assumes he is doing seem to match his state of denial about his relationship to her. She has come to tell him that she and her new boyfriend, Tim (Matt Walsh), have decided to get married, and John does not take it well. Jamie points out that they have been divorced for seven years. "It still stinks," says John. And: "I'm still surprised." Yet, though he professes to be surprised and shocked, at the same time he says, "I knew it!" — as people will when accusing others of what seems to them treachery.
What's with this guy? Why does the long-divorced Jamie still have such power over John, even though she was the one who ended the relationship? Why does he still turn to her for help and advice at every turn and why does she — and, still more, Tim — put up with it? John seems to have carried passive-aggression to a whole new level. He allows himself to be ordered around by Jamie and even by Jamie's new man, but this is all part of the fantasy she represents in the movie, that of the ex-wife as best friend and confidant whose continuing concern for John is quite unfazed by his attempts to cling to her. And she finally leads him into a relationship with another fantasy in the form of the fantastically sexy Molly (Marisa Tomei), whom he meets at a party that Jamie has insisted he attend just in order to meet somebody new.
Even Molly cannot tear him away from his creepy intimacy with Jamie, but this is at least partly because she has an even creepier intimacy of her own with her grown-up son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill) who lives alone with her and whose relationship with her is anything but healthy. Such dramatic energy as the movie contains comes from the tug-of-war between these two creepy guys with their creepy dependency on inappropriate relationships with women who are themselves rather creepily unwilling to set boundaries for them. That this struggle between two natural enemies puts John on the side of a more normal and healthy relationship makes him the hero, but only by contrast with Cyrus, but both are borderline stalkers. And that their respective stalkees both seem rather flattered by the attention, is the movie's real fantasy.
Indeed, John's meet-cute with Molly at the party results from her unaccountably finding attractive both his urinating in his hosts' yard and his embarrassing singalong to "Don't You Want Me, Baby?" by the Human League. In case you don't know this song, the chorus goes like this:
Don't, don't you want me
You know I can't believe it
When I hear that you won't see me
Don't, don't you want me
You know I don't believe you
When you say that you don't need me
It's much too late to find
You think you've changed your mind
You'd better change it back
Or we will both be sorry
That John thinks this the best song ever is just one more indication that he is a stalker by temperament, if a genial and harmless one — at least compared to Cyrus whose relationship with his mother just skirts the borders of incestuousness. So the regular or garden-variety stalker is a fantasist, like the movie-makers, but the latters' fantasy includes the fantasy of someone who makes their hero-stalker look like a preferable alternative to the other stalker in the stalkee's life. As this is a fantasy, albeit one constrained by the necessities of commercial success, you can probably guess what happens. Creepy as he is, Cyrus is not allowed to become any real danger to himself or others — or even, ultimately, to the relationship between John and Molly. So, we ask ourselves at the end, what was that all about? And, like the slackers that they are and that they celebrate, the Duplass brothers shrug their shoulders and say, "Whatever."