Dark comedies are like zebras. For every piece of light fun they contain, there is an equal and opposite element of dark reflection and poignancy. They can be deeply moving, and at times very sad, but dark comedies are, in the end, always naturally white horses with some dark stripes splashed on top.
At the Michigan
Jay and Mark Duplass’ “Cyrus” is more of a black horse with white stripes. To call it simply a “dark comedy” does it a disservice — like walking by a church and calling it merely a “building.” The film actually means much more than that label, and it stays with its audience longer than other films of its mold.
The casting is probably the best aspect of “Cyrus.” None of the actors look like they’re in over their heads dramatically, but no one is forced to be funnier than they actually are. John C. Reilly (“Step Brothers”) was clearly sought out for his role (as the main character, John) the same way in which film executives must have gone after Bill Murray when casting for “Lost in Translation.” Reilly is one of the few actors in the world whose broken, pained smile can evoke our deepest sympathies mere minutes after we — in the form of Catherine Keener (“Where the Wild Things Are”) — walk in on him masturbating in his empty apartment.
While Keener’s role as Reilly’s ex-wife is developed and important, the lead actress in this film is Marisa Tomei (“The Wrestler”). As perfectly cast as Reilly is for his role as a quirky divorcée desperate for human connection, Tomei is hauntingly brilliant as Molly, a single mom trying to resuscitate her own sexuality as Reilly’s love interest.
Tomei is probably the only reason someone wouldn’t walk away from this film with a renewed appreciation for Reilly’s range as an actor. She quietly, with just a flip of her eyelashes, a whisper through the covers of her bed, steals the show. She embodies the subtlety with which single people her age (in their forties) still try to flirt. It’s like she creates two characters for us in this film: The first is the fun-loving, sexy woman Reilly falls for at a party early on, and the next is the subdued, suburban woman that time and circumstance (and a child) have forced her to become.
That college-aged child is played by the baby-faced Jonah Hill (“Get Him to the Greek”) and his name is Cyrus. It initially feels odd that this film is named after his character, because he starts out seeming like he’s not going to be anything but a funny sideshow to the love story around which the plot rotates. At first, Cyrus’s conniving ways and backstabbing at Reilly’s attempts to woo his mother make us laugh in a kind of inverse-“Meet the Parents” dynamic. But, as the film continues, we begin to doubt just how “funny” Cyrus’s antics are, and even to question his sanity.
Perhaps that’s why this film is titled “Cyrus.” Maybe it is Hill’s name on a marquee that Fox Searchlight wanted because of how deeply rooted his career and his talents are in pure comedy. In a way, Hill’s well-played Cyrus is the chief “reverse-zebra” in this movie. The depth of his character, who is dark on the inside but funny on the exterior, is what gives this film its identity. For the first time, it seems that Jonah Hill is allowed to become a deeper, darker horse with only a few white stripes, and not just an overweight joke machine with one or two sad moments interspersed.