[Screen It]

(2010) (John C. Reilly, Maria Tomei) (R)

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Dramedy: A manipulative young man tries to stymie his mom's relationship with the new man in her life.
John (JOHN C. REILLY) is a freelance editor who still hasn't gotten over his divorce from Jamie (CATHERINE KEENER) seven years ago. While they're good friends, the fact that she's about to marry Tim (MATT WALSH) has pushed him deeper into isolation. Accordingly, Jamie drags him along to a party where things start to look up when he meets Molly (MARISA TOMEI) who likes his honesty about himself. After they end up sleeping together, John is smitten, nearly to the point of stalking her.

It's then that he discovers she's the single mom to Cyrus (JONAH HILL). He's a 21-year-old aspiring musician who still lives at home and has an oddly close relationship with his mom, but initially seems accepting of her relationship with John. As the days pass, however, John soon believes that Cyrus is manipulating his mom in hopes of eventually driving a wedge between her and him, something that doesn't sit well with John.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While a few other species in the animal kingdom show similar traits, you'd be hard pressed to find stronger parent-child bonds than in humans. Granted, that isn't universal as there are horrible parents, and kids who break their hearts. In general, however, if you separate them, especially when the children are at a young age, trouble will clearly be in the works (angry and near homicidally protective parents and really upset to the point of hysterical children).

As most grow kids grow up, however, the bond often loosens to various degrees, where separation doesn't end up such a big deal and sometimes is welcomed by both parties. It's when one or both sides of that familial equation don't let go or even become possessive that things can turn dark. In the movies that can be dark dangerous or dark funny, and the latest such flick to cover such material, "Cyrus," wants to have it both ways but never fully commits in either or both directions.

It's still a decent offering, and thankfully serves as a welcome alternative in a summer of movies based on previous material. Yet, it could have been really good to excellent if it would have had the guts to push the envelope with such matters. It just feels like it pulls up before going all of the way in either straight, outrageous comedy or delving into the bleak corners of black comedy.

Granted, the tale of a budding romance undermined because of another man isn't exactly novel. Sometimes that involves a husband who's still at home (in an affair-based tale), while others revolve around disapproving fathers and sometimes brothers. Others have relationships endangered when the man discovers the new woman in his life is also a mother, and those tales can pull their comedic and/or dramatic material from having the kids ranging anywhere from crying infants to surly and/or distant teens.

Few, however, feature a 21-year-old "kid" who still lives at home and has a somewhat suspicious and unnervingly close relationship with his mom. That would be the title character of this film and he's terrifically played by Jonah Hill who's finally and thankfully breaking free from the sarcastic friend and/or lovable loser character types with which he's made a name for himself. Here, he embodies a young man who's hard to pinpoint and that's what makes him interesting.

He could just be a socially maladjusted son who never broke free from his mom (played well by Marisa Tomei). Then again, he might be genuinely concerned about her seeing this new man -- a terrific John C. Reilly -- who isn't exactly the most well-adjusted person himself (and pretty much stalks Molly in the early days after first meeting her) after "finally" getting over his divorce from his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) seven years earlier.

Or the young man could be a manipulative and maybe even homicidal maniac who's toying with his prey until he's ready to pounce. A scene where Reilly's character sleeps over, gets up, and discovers Hill's character in his socks and a long t-shirt in the kitchen, standing quite still, holding a large kitchen knife, and creepily telling his mom's new boyfriend to come to him would seem to indicate we're leaning quite heavily in that latter direction.

Thankfully, co-directors Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, who work from their own screenplay, don't take the easy way out and pigeonhole the character in one mode. It's fun (in a black comedy sort of way) watching him segue from one type to another, and that keeps the viewer off-balance and thus engaged in what's going to transpire.

The straight comedy aspect of all of that is watching the mind games between the two men -- sometimes subtle and nuanced, and sometimes quite blatant -- as they try to one-up or undermine the other, all without letting the mom catch on (and thus loose her love in favor of the other).

That said, I kept expecting the film to kick into fourth or fifth gear in such regard sometime in the third act, when and where everything would finally let loose in a fury of comedy, violence, shock, surprise or some combination thereof.

While things do eventually come to a head, it's of the third gear variety and thus feels, well, a bit disappointing considering how things were building up to that point. No, I wasn't expecting or hoping for some sort of usual Hollywood ending, and it is cool that the filmmakers conclude things on something of a nebulous note where anything is really possible after the end credits roll.

Even so, it's all decently constructed and played out, although I suspect critics and art house cinema aficionados will probably like it far better than general audiences. With some extra oomph and daring, "Cyrus" could have been a small comedic masterpiece. As it stands, it's good, but can't help feeling it's been held back a bit. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed May 26, 2010 / Posted June 25, 2010

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