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Movie Review

Cyrus

Mama's boy: ‘Cyrus’ has issues, some of them funny

Jonah Hill stars as Cyrus, a 20-year-old who has a strange relationship with his mother and causes problems for her boyfriend. Jonah Hill stars as Cyrus, a 20-year-old who has a strange relationship with his mother and causes problems for her boyfriend. (Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 25, 2010

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With “Cyrus,’’ Jonah Hill finally gets the Big Baby part that has been laying in wait his whole short career. Actually, the title role of the squirmy new comedy from Jay and Mark Duplass may remind you of Baby Huey, the giant, infantile duck from old comic books. Put a diaper on Hill and stick an oversize bottle in his mouth, and the illusion would be complete. Just don’t hold the image in your head too long.

Cyrus is 20, and he lives at home with his mother, Molly, composing reasonably awful electronic music and scaring potential boyfriends away. Molly is played with aching comic fragility by Marisa Tomei, and whatever has happened in her life — and whoever is responsible for the other half of Cyrus’s DNA — it has left her gun-shy of men and content in a hermetic, quasi-incestuous relationship with her son.

Into this hothouse wanders John (John C. Reilly), a divorced sad sack — the kind of guy who unburdens himself to strange women at parties — who can’t believe that Molly would give him a tumble. An immediate problem with the movie is that we don’t believe it, either. She does, though, and the early scenes are a bumptious romantic comedy of desperation and hope.

Then John meets Cyrus, and the games begin. The kid is superficially friendly but little things seem off — the hostile, froglike stare Cyrus gives John when he thinks no one’s looking, the sneaker that unaccountably goes missing when John stays overnight. The film seems poised to build, scene by scene, toward a grand comic explosion of jealousy and immature behavior.

Instead, “Cyrus’’ goes off like a succession of squibs: not bang but pop-pop-pop. Maybe it’s wrong to expect otherwise from the Duplass brothers, who with 2005’s “The Puffy Chair’’ and the drolly funny “Baghead’’ (2008) represent the (slightly) more commercial wing of the so-called Mumblecore movement. The duo specializes in setting up uncomfortable but loaded comic situations and letting their casts wing their way through. The approach can work with the right actors but it’s the exact opposite of precision farce — more like shaggy observational slapstick — and too often their movies just lie there, refusing to gather momentum.

This marks the first time the Duplasses have worked with known stars — actually, “Cyrus’’ may be the sellout they’ve been moving toward all along. They do hold on to their shaky-cam shooting technique — itself a hollow visual signifier of indie cred — and the actors, including Catherine Keener (of course) as John’s remarkably patient ex-wife, know how to find the beats. The awkward, stop/start politeness between Cyrus and his mom’s new beau is at times so painful that it’s a relief when the gloves come off and the conflict moves into open war for Molly’s affections.

Yet the filmmakers’ reliance on improvisation puts the focus on individual scenes, and there are no bigger ideas or energy holding the movie together. I’m always happy to watch Reilly do his Deputy Droop-a-long thing — he makes the character cringingly real — and a Hill who bottles his rage instead of spewing it out is an interesting wrinkle. I’d be happier still if Tomei had an actual character to play rather than one whose personality changes with the needs of the script. But the Duplasses have always been much smarter about men than women.

Most frustrating, “Cyrus’’ is a black comedy that consistently pulls its punches, refusing to explore the weirder, darker aspects of its own premise. It’s too slack to shock. The film has its moments, but it shows the Duplasses poised on the edge of the big time with nothing to say and no real interest in risk. Come to think of it, they’ll probably do just fine.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

CYRUS

Written and directed by: Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

Starring: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei

At: AMC Loews Harvard Square

Running time: 92 minutes

Rated: R (language, some sexual material)

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