Cyrus is a strange film, one that does make you laugh – it’s billed as a comedy – but ends up making you think pretty hard after the laughs are over. The story turns on the extremely close relationship between a mother, Molly (played by Marisa Tomei), and her HUGE 22 year old boy-man son Cyrus (played by Jonah Hill). This mother-son relationship is disrupted by the intrusion of an outside masculine – if you can call it that – force, John (played by John C. Reilly), and the story then becomes a struggle between John and Jonah over the possession of Molly. The humor in the film is primarily a result of these two men – the infantile John (who is supposedly the adult male in the movie) and the grown-up child Cyrus who has a seemingly uncomfortably close relationship to his sexy mother Molly. As the tensions and struggles play out, we get to cringe at all the characters, chuckle at some awkward moments, and then ultimately reach a kind of reconciliation and acceptance in a three-way relationship.
Part of the reason that Cyrus works, both as a comedy and a feel-good alternative love story, is that the film pays close attention to detail. The characters may be stereotypes, but they are types firmly fixed in a specific geography and class position. First and foremost, Cyrus is an L.A. movie, a subgenre in its own right which includes Anniversary Party, Magnolia, and Greenberg. And as an L.A. movie, it does a great job of observing the fine nuances of class stratification that occurs within the city’s white middle class.
Starting with the run-down Spanish stucco exterior of John’s house, we enter his environment with his ex-wife (played by that Queen of the Aging Boomer Set, Catherine Keener) as she walks in and finds him sprawling on his unmade bed with his pants down jerking off to internet porn. The interior of his home is as tawdry as the scene: dirty and totally lacking in life. The leather sofa is buried under piles of newspapers and dirty clothes. The kitchen table is full of unopened mail. An old microwave oven, dirty Mr. Coffee, and empty walls are the primary décor. We know this character from the world he lives in. He is a lonely, existential man, not poor, but too self-pitying to do anything but hide his head and his penis in the hovel of his home and his internet connection.
Other excellent moments of mise-en-scène include the various settings where John interacts with his ex-wife Jamie, in which set details point to the subtle class differences between the characters. It is clear that Jamie left John because he was, well, a loser. It is also clear that while John has remained stagnant (hiding in his dark dismal house jerking off to porn), Jamie has done a little class climbing. She invites him to a party which is held somewhere in the Hollywood hills, and John is clearly out of his class element against the backdrop of the towering two-story windows in the perfectly appointed home with its Pottery Barn interiors, the tended bar, and women drinking wine and having smart conversations. John keeps awkwardly inserting himself into a class environment that is out of his league. His uncomfortable position is funny. We laugh at him as if he is trying on a pair of pants that he will never fit in yet he keeps forcing his body inside them.
In one great scene, John attempts to join two women’s conversation, and when they blow him off, he leans on the light switch and rips the whole apparatus out of the wall. The hole in the wall dangles with the guts of the house leaking out, literalizing his dirty and awkward intrusion in this house of Hollywood manners and posturing. Then there is John pissing in the bushes and dancing to 80s new wave music, again tainting the environment with his vulgar ways. Also, when John visits Jamie in the home she shares with her fiancé, it is clear that she is doing well. A perfect L.A. “modernist” home with everything in its place, the meticulous order of the L.A. White Wine-Drinking Aging Boomer Elite is inscribed on every polished surface and perfectly appointed piece of pottery.
Then there is Molly’s house. It’s interesting because when John and Molly meet at the party, they are clearly drawn to each other by a kind of “class” bonding. John is pissing in the bushes when Molly spots him, admires his penis, and then says she was going to pee in those bushes but he took her spot. So they bond over class and then go back to John’s hovel for a fuck. When we finally see Molly’s home, we expect her to be living in some fairly run-down and tawdry place (because the movie has already inscribed her character with a “lower” class), but instead, Molly has a very nice classic L.A. 1940s era house on a hill, and the interior is clean, tidy, and far from poor. While she doesn’t have the posturing architecture and interior design of Jamie and her friends’ homes, Molly is clearly in the comfortable middle class. She also has pottery in her house, a nice sofa, and clean and well-appointed kitchen, and to top it off, she has a high-tech music studio in her living room for her son Cyrus. The music studio, along with other subtle details about Molly and Cyrus’s home life (the take-out Chinese food, the fact that they spend every morning taking “art photographs” in the park, and that Molly home-schooled Cyrus) also stamp the environment with a certain white L.A. post-counterculture.
For all its creature comforts, however, what’s most interesting about Molly’s house is that her class background is revealed in the small details, like the wallpaper in her bedroom, the wicker baskets on the tables, the mural in Cyrus’s bedroom, and the little trinkets from Cyrus’s childhood. There is a subtlety of class stratification between the characters etched into the homes they occupy. While Jamie’s home is full of pretense and a need to show-off its status, Molly’s home has a sincerity inscribed onto the surface, her class background showing through “frills” rather than “austerity.”
It’s this sense of place and how it reflects geographic and class specificity that makes the character development in the film feel richer than is usually the case in comedies marketed the way Cyrus has been. By knowing, literally, where each of the three leads is coming from, we are prepared to appreciate their complexity. And make no mistake about it, despite the film’s seemingly surface humor, these are complex characters.
John C. Reilly is in his usual fine form playing John, an emasculated man who balances self-effacing pathetic existentialism with oozing sincerity. Certainly John’s sense of emasculation is critical to his character. The movie simultaneously focuses on his penis and also makes it clear that a need for penis-validation (whether conscious or unconscious) is central to his dilemma. We meet him jerking off to porn. Then we see him pissing in a bush at a party where Molly compliments him by saying, “Nice penis.” Bingo! She admires his penis, and they fall in love.
There’s only one problem. John has a hard time both proving and acting on his virility and exercising his newly admired and validated penis because Molly is too consumed by her maternal relationship to her son Cyrus, and Cyrus is too preoccupied in sabotaging Molly and John’s relationship. So John is both validated by the “mother,” but also undone by the product of her maternity and her instincts to protect him. What a conundrum!
The problematic relationship of John’s penis to Molly’s relationship to her son becomes particularly clear in a scene when Molly finally decides to try to have sex with John while her son Cyrus is in the house. Before John can insert his member and get the job done, Cyrus cries out in a panic attack and provokes “coitus interruptus” before there could even be anything to interrupt. Later, when John decides to confront Cyrus, the camera literally hones in on the form of John’s penis and testicles squished into his boyish white jockey shorts as he enters Cyrus’s room for a showdown. Seriously, the screen is full-frame John’s penis in Jockey shorts during the moment when John opens the door to confront Cyrus. It’s like he is thrusting his manhood into the screen to show he is going to stand up and fight, but at the same time, his manhood looks ridiculously boyish all tucked into his jockey shorts.
At this point, the conflict in the movie is brought to the surface – the struggle between the boy, the man, and the mother. Will the son or the man win? Will the son grow up to be a man? Will the man continue to be a boy? Who will win the mother’s love? This conflict is made most entertaining and bizarre because John C. Reilly always looks like a pathetic aging boy with his pudgy little nose, his wrinkly confused brow, and his sad puppy dog eyes. His physical appearance never allows him to really look fully like a man, and that is clearly the case in this movie. As he comforts Molly in her crisis and attempts to prove his love to her, we can’t help but feel that he is just another boy stepping in to fill Cyrus’s shoes. Speaking of which, perhaps when Cyrus steals John’s shoes the first time John visits his house, he is literally attempting to prevent John from filling his shoes! Certainly, in his own infantile way, John is the other “male child” in the movie, so it makes sense that Cyrus would see him as competition.
Cyrus, the namesake of the movie, is definitely the most entertaining character. Jonah Hill plays his role for maximum ambiguity. We cannot get a handle on this character, and that is part of the fun of the movie. He seems polite, smart, mature, and engaging at one moment, then sadistic, manipulative, controlling and outright evil in another moment. Then he seems vulnerable and boyish, and then malicious and dangerous. He’s all over the place in his character, but there is one place he is firmly anchored — to his mother. What the movie does so well is make us laugh at this big huge grown boy/man and his relationship to his mother (such as in the dinner scene where she picks the peppers out of his Chinese food for him) but then also makes us feel a kind of sincere appreciation for their closeness. At some points Molly and Cyrus seem completely bizarre and dysfunctional (like the photo that John holds up of Molly breast feeding an enormous Cyrus who looks like he’s six years old), but at others they just seem like a loving, caring family, a mother and son who love each other, love doing things together, and sharing their lives together.
One of the reasons we can’t get a fix on Cyrus is because we are never sure whose perspective we can trust in this movie, and that is one of the things that makes it interesting. The movie continually manipulates us by switching between John, Cyrus and Molly’s perspectives. At one moment we see things through John’s eyes and think that Cyrus is a complete psychopath. But the next moment we see Cyrus through Molly’s eyes as a mother who loves her son and wants to take care of him. But then the coin is flipped and we’re seeing things through Cyrus who worries that his whole domestic stability is on the verge of being destroyed. The movie shifts so rapidly that it never allows us to entirely cast judgment on anyone. Instead, it makes us experience the tense and awkward relationship dynamics between the three main characters as they experience it themselves. This perspective manipulation is delivered with great comic effect in the scene when Cyrus plays his music for John. John hears the first few chords of the synthesizer and says, “It sounds like Steve Miller.” Cyrus glares at John and says, “No it doesn’t.” He then flips a few switches and pounds on a few keyboards, and the music kicks full throttle into house/ambient dance music. It’s totally unexpected. The music is not what John expects nor what the audience expects from this overgrown man-child who needs to have his peppers picked out of his Chinese food. This scene beautifully delivers the shifting perspective that is at play throughout the movie. That’s pretty clever filmmaking.
Let’s talk about Molly, the mother in the movie. If Cyrus were a porn flick, like the ones John is used to watching on his computer, it would be categorized under the “MILF” category. Certainly there is no doubting that this movie could have been titled “A Mother I’d LikeTo Fuck”, and certainly few “aging mothers” on screen look more fuckable than Marisa Tomei. Yes, she looks hot. And it is made clear that she is a great fuck. And she is also obviously a loving mother. She plays these two roles with equal success: she unequivocally looks sexy and looks like a caring mother.
The only problem is the emphasis on “look.” While Cyrus and John deliver actual dialogue and complexity of character, Molly appears to be pretty much just the confused Mommy In The Middle. She does a great job of looking torn, sad, confused, and sometimes happy, but she actually delivers very few lines in the movie that mean anything. She is a body with a face, but her character’s dialogue is actually kind of awkwardly shunted out of the movie. Even though she is the primary source of tension (who will win Mommy?), Molly’s character is more shallow than that of the two “men” in her life.
What lines Molly does have are most often delivered through strange voiceovers in which the dialogue is submerged in an awkward casing like we are hearing it spoken underwater. Some of Molly’s most effective moments are when she’s lying on the sofa staring into depressed space or walking down the street showing her incredibly sexy legs. Essentially what the screenplay has done is made a woman (not just any woman but The Mother) central to its plot, but then proceeded to drain her of any solidity. The movie isn’t really about her after all. Like so many movies in this kind of indie-comedy genre, it is about males struggling with their sense of emasculation by projecting it onto the women in their lives. Molly is a Mommy Mirror inside of which John and Cyrus want to see themselves reflected.
Nevertheless, as lacking in solidity as Molly’s character is in the screenplay, Marisa Tomei gives Molly all she’s got through facial expressions and bodily character acting. Like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, Tomei infuses depth into her character through body language. Her furrowed brow, pulled down mouth, or just the angle with which she holds her arm over her head project character depth through mumbled silence. Through Tomei’s acting, Molly’s character isn’t just about how she looks, but how she looks out at us and at the two men in her life. Tomei put enough thrust into her character to win me over, even if she didn’t have many lines to deliver. As a 48 year old mother, I sympathized with the tensions in her life – reconciling her close relationship to her child with the fact he is growing (grown in this case) up, confronting split allegiances, navigating the place between wanting to be an independent woman but holding on tight to those maternal strings. Tomei gives all of that to Molly’s character, and in so doing makes the movie a lot more realistic than its absurd surface plot may seem.
What I realized at the movie’s closure, when Molly, Cyrus, and John are reconciled in a new happily-ever-after trio, that ultimately, through its exaggerated circumstances, Cyrus exposes the inherent dysfunctionality of all family relationships and allows us to accept them by accepting this “weird” family unit. The movie takes the reality of the tensions between parents and children, men and women, between growing up and staying a kid, and brings them to the surface by expressing them in such comic parodic form. When Molly, Cyrus, and John accept the boy (who is also a man), the man (who is also a boy), and the mother (who is also a sexualized woman) on their own terms, sure it’s a corny ending, but in a way, it is the ending that we all kind of hope for and struggle with. There is a sincerity to Cyrus that won my heart, and I think that sincerity ultimately made it a better movie for me. It could have just been awkward, uncomfortable, and mean-spirited, but instead it resists allowing us to dislike the characters or cast judgment on them, but instead shows us that there is a lot of reality, even in caricatures. We can accept the movie’s sincerity because of its ultimate absurdity and our recognition that life is indeed absurd, so why pretend otherwise.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.