So the family film has been around for a while; PG-rated entertainment celebrating the core of society. If it’s supposed to be funny, you add a few members and make Yours, Mine and Ours. (Note that Henry Fonda with his ten kids and Lucille Ball with her eight are widower and widow, respectively, not divorcées, in a film that’s still good fun and much better than the inane 2005 remake). If you want to make it scary, add a ghost and make Poltergeist.
But whatever you do, home is where Father carves the turkey on Thanksgiving. He knows best, after all. Perhaps the U.S. has been missing a strong father figure for long enough now (recent and current presidents not exactly being helpful models in that role), that missing fathers have become a staple even in mainstream TV entertainment. Unless you’re into special investigators or mediums, you’ll have to make do with patchwork families and unusual domestic arrangements like Two and a Half Men to reflect the reality of the American family much more than the dream of father-mother- children still very much around.
Not at all around is a father-husband in the new John C. Reilly-vehicle Cyrus. When loser John (Reilly) meets the beautiful, easy-going Molly (Marisa Tomei), he’s sure he doesn’t deserve her; he can’t believe his luck. Until he meets her son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who still lives at home at 20 years of age. At first, John is quite willing to take what’s clearly an overly close mother-son relationship bordering on the pathological as simply unconventional, a quirk, something you overlook in a person you love like a mole on the cheek. But Cyrus’ interventions quickly take on a threatening note and soon the two men are at war over this woman who seems a little too smart to not see what’s happening.
It’s at this point that Cyrus turns from a comedy that lives from exaggeration and caricature into a poignant drama about loneliness. All three protagonists see an emptiness at the core of their existence, and try to fill it with something that would make their lives worth living. They would love to truly connect but aren’t able to, because what they should say, as grownup politically correct tolerant people, continually gets in the way of articulating their real needs. And when they do speak honestly, it doesn’t automatically lead to happiness all around. Cyrus fully acknowledges the reality that saying what you think can hurt the one you’re talking to. Your happiness might only be possible at the expense of someone else’s. That Cyrus constantly swings back and forth between drama and comedy actually works to its advantage here because it wisely employs the strengths of especially Reilly and Hill, getting some very poignant performances, rejecting easy solutions on the way and risking leaving a mainstream audience wondering.
CYRUS | Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (USA 2010), with John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei. Opens November 25.