Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and John C. Reilly, in 'Cyrus'

Dir. Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass
(2010, R, 92 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Isn’t it refreshing when a romantic comedy is about the people in it? The plot of Cyrus is one that could easily have been made crass by a mainstream Hollywood production: A sad-sack divorcé finds love with a beautiful woman only to contend with her disapproving adult son. Come to think of it, a similar plot was already made crass by a mainstream Hollywood production: Step Brothers, about the blending of two families by marriage. Both films star John C. Reilly, with the important difference that the previous film was interested in violence and pointless vulgarity, while this one is interested in its characters, who have conversations instead of plot complications.

Reilly plays John, whose ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) announces her plans to remarry. Perhaps out of guilt or obligation, she invites him to a party and encourages him to meet women. After several failed attempts, he’s approached by Molly (Marisa Tomei), who at first sight seems to be out of his league, but maybe there’s a reason she has trouble finding a good man who will stick around.

Molly lives with her adult son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). She home-schooled him. His father isn’t in the picture, and she hasn’t had a man spend the night since he was born. She sleeps with her door open in case he needs her. He uses her bathroom while she’s showering, and they sing together. Here, the film, written and directed by mumblecore pioneers Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair), faces one of its greatest challenges: to show this codependent pair without making them objects of pity or ridicule. Tomei’s performance is integral; she highlights Molly’s vulnerability and warmth, as in a dinner scene with Cyrus and John where we see in her face the fear of quickly losing the new man in her life.

This is the best performance I’ve seen from Jonah Hill. He plays much of it for comedy, of course. He stares with sinister, ambiguous eyes — almost maniacal — as when he plays his (very good) music on synthesizers, and his dual nature — innocence for his mother, seething contempt for John — produces many of the film’s laughs. But there’s sadness at his core, and in late scenes Hill shows raw anger at the man threatening the only consistent relationship in his life. It didn’t occur to me until after the film ended that we never learn anything about Cyrus’s love life. Has he ever had a girlfriend? A boyfriend? Been on a date? We don’t think of this while watching the film. We understand that his relationship with Molly crowds out all other connections. “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” Norman Bates once said. Sometimes his only friend.