Independent filmmakers generally fall into two categories: those who yearn to go Hollywood (and just make something low-budget as a calling card) and those with genuine integrity. On the basis of their third feature, it’s hard to tell where Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) belong, or even where they think they belong. Cyrus straddles the line so hard the crotch of its jeans may rip.
For one thing, they’re working with movie stars for the first time, albeit fairly low-rent movie stars. John C. Reilly (Chicago, Step Brothers) plays John, a long-divorced sad sack who’s dragged to a party by his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and somehow attracts the attention of the beautiful and spirited Molly (Marisa Tomei). Unfortunately, Molly comes with some disturbing baggage: her adult son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who still lives at home and clearly perceives John as an unwelcome rival for his mom’s affection. Thus begins a war of wills in which the two men, who despise each other but must feign buddyhood to avoid alienating Molly, engage in various Machiavellian schemes designed to send the other packing.
As described, this could be either a broad mainstream comedy or a subtle indie character study. As executed by the Duplass brothers, it’s essentially both at once. Written jokes tend to be feeble (“There is no way I’m going to a party!” John insists; smash cut to John at the party), but much of the dialogue was expertly improvised, with Hill in particular getting hilarious mileage from mild pleasantries delivered with a discomfiting death stare. Even as the movie skillfully escalates the tension, however, it seems resigned to providing the audience with a happy ending in which everybody concerned learns some Valuable Lesson, culminating in a soggy heart-to-heart between John and Cyrus that needs only a few notes from a harmonica to seem entirely airlifted from an old episode of Perfect Strangers (with Cyrus as Balki). Do the Duplasses want to make bona fide art or just pacify the masses? They need to decide.