When I decided that Cyrus was to be my next post, I originally intended on focusing on Jonah Hill and how, with his execution in the role as the title character, for the first time made me realize the depth of performance he was capable of as an actor. Up until that point, I had viewed him largely as a comedic presence—albeit a finely tuned one—certainly capable of digging deep within a character to mine true emotion, ultimately ensuring his comedic creations will have a healthy shelf life. But with the role of Cyrus, he was obviously going for more than he ever had before; all at once bitter, off-putting, entirely unpredictable from scene to scene, and oddly enough, understandable and funny in a fashion that throws safe out the window without sacrificing the truth of the character, and by extension, representing those real-life Cyrus types that continue to dwell in their mom’s house without turning them into a gross caricature. If you haven’t treated yourself to one of the best performances in 2010, do so now; you won’t be disappointed.
And yet, as I watched Cyrus for the fourth or fifth (maybe more, who’s counting) time in preparation for this post, I came to the conclusion that I had to discuss the career of John C. Reilly instead. Reilly burst into film with a role that remains one of his most fascinating, as PFC Herbert “Hatch” Hatcher, a supporting role in Brian DePalma’s excellent and often overlooked Vietnam drama, The Casualties of War. Hatch is obtuse in the worst way, and when that unfortunate character trait is combined with a monumental need to gain approval from Sean Penn’s Meserve—the group’s psychotic chieftain—it results in an intriguing piece of work that is made all the more astonishing since he was capable of making people take notice of his talents with limited screen time. I didn’t see his debut until much later, but oddly enough, the first role I remember him in was a film that is now largely forgotten—with good reason—the Meryl Streep action vehicle (?!?!?), The River Wild. There wasn’t much of anything the actors could do to cover up the stink of failure, but I remember being taken with Reilly’s performance as Harry nonetheless, guaranteeing that the actor’s craggily face and disheveled coif were burned into my brain from that point on, leading to a smiling visage whenever he would pop up in supporting performances for the next couple of years.
Two years later, Reilly would establish a fruitful relationship with a director by the name of Paul Thomas Anderson, who was in the process of become a distinctive talent and one of the best American directors to ply his trade in the medium. With his performance inHard Eight, Reilly showed that not only was he one of the best supporting actors in the game, but he had the chops to carry a movie as well and would also begin to flush out traits inherent in his performance that were present going all the way back to his debut performance as Hatch. Reilly is a master at relating vulnerability to his audience and in Hard Eight, as well as his other work with Anderson, Boogie Nightsand Magnolia, he takes full advantage of his opportunities to do so, oftentimes combining this trait with the sadness (occasionally bordering on anger) of an outsider with an enduring desire to fit in and gain acceptance where he can. His everyman look heightens his ability to foster connections with audience members and, in addition, allows him to blend seamlessly into the texture of his early films. Despite the prodigious talents the actor shows in the ability to mine these particular character beats, it isn’t what serves to fundamentally set the actor apart from his peers; instead it lies in the seemingly effortless way he blends those attributes with a flair for comedy. Watch the actor closely as he brings the character of Reed Rothchild to life in Boogie Nights. Humor is innate in all the scenes in which the actor appears (You know, people tell me I kind of look like Han Solo); true it’s not the in-your-face, absurdist-juvenile style that mainstream audience would come to expect and identify with the actor in his Apatow-produced films of the mid-to late aughts, but it’s there just the same. The early incarnation of a Reilly performance used comedy in a subtle fashion, as an illuminator of the character’s truth, their outlook on life, and the world they inhabit, informing an approach to the material that helped the actor craft some of his best and most lasting performances, all the while doing it in a way that no other actor has before him.
This is what made it so hard on me when Reilly sudden veered into straight-up comedy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy or think that Reilly is as proficient in the random, loony, insolent man-child style of comedy that he along with Will Ferrell and the creators of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! have been able to take to epic heights in the past 8 or so years. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I believe him to be equally adept in this manner of tickling one’s funny bone; the main problem is that this style is about the situation and not the character, and an actor as good as he is shouldn’t get lost in those types of roles for the better part of decade as he did. It seemed like the actor got stuck in a highly profitable version of neutral and the audience, knowingly or not, suffered as a result. Recently, the old Reilly has started to awaken from a creative hibernation but to date he has only worked on two movies to fully capture the best of what he has to offer, Roman Polanski’s Carnage and Mark and Jay Duplass’ Cyrus, the second of which gives the actor the role of a life-time.
Cyrus successfully combines both versions of Reilly’s persona in John, a lonely, middle-aged divorcee who has just found out that his ex-wife, Jamie (played by the always kick-ass Catherine Keener) is about to be remarried to Tim (Matt Walsh). It’s been 7 years since their divorce but John has yet to move on or even make an effort to; in fact, he managed to regress, spending many a lonely night heating up food that would look out of place anywhere but a dorm room and generously participating in time-honored 14-year-old male activities like excessive masturbation. Jamie still cares about John in the capacity of a friend/caretaker, so she invites him along to a party she will be attending with Tim. Reluctantly, he agrees and while at the party, he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei, another outstanding performance) and something clicks between them; it’s real in that way that only happens once or twice in life—if you’re lucky. However, Molly has a curious—and to John—off-putting way of disappearing in the middle of the night. When John asks why, Molly dodges the question with the skill of a politician participating in a nationally televised debate. Frustrated and believing her to be married, John decides to follow her home. Much to his initial relief, he finds out that Molly isn’t hitched, but to his (delayed) dismay, what he finds instead is just as complicated. Molly has a 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who she raised on her own, and their relationship is so close that it’s impenetrable. From the first moment that Cyrus meets John, tension bubbles just a hair below the surface. There is no doubt that Cyrus is strange, but is he willfully trying to sabotage John? If so, can his relationship with Molly last in the long-term with Cyrus’ weird behavior and attempts at subterfuge mucking up the proceedings? And does Molly recognize the damage that is being done and will she be able to balance a life that contains both men?
The Duplass brothers do a wonderful job in creating a small, no-frills film, and one that carries a light and effortless quality that remains innate for its brief runtime. It’s loose and real, taking full advantage of the improvisational skills of its cast (which creates wonderfully naturalistic dialogue), intimate handheld photography, and the skillful editing of Jay Deuby. Everything about Cyrus is micro, allowing the vision of the directors and the voice of the actors’ interpretation of the characters to shine through. Some have mentioned that the style of comedy employed here is horrific in nature, akin to that of Larry David or Ricky Gervais, but I believe this comparison only serves to shortchange the film. As much as I love both of those comedians and their respective shows, Cyrus aims higher than simply making its audience uncomfortable (although if you can get through the wedding scene without cringing I doubt there is much that can make you squirm) as it treats its viewers with a honest and humorous look at how relationships between the men and women of today function, much like the work of Albert Brooks in his heyday.
As John, Reilly finds a perfect role for his talents, allowing him to soar here in a way that is normally reserved for his work with Anderson. He delivers a performance that is multilayered—further heightened by his chemistry with Hill and Tomei–allowing him to reveal the truth of his character in ways that I’m sure make certain audiences members uncomfortable. Every emotion is laid bare helping to make John relatable and vanity free, reminding viewers of how extraordinary the actor’s skills are. His best work occurs early on during the party just before he meets Molly. John is desperately trying to fit in and forget an earlier, embarrassing situation with Jamie and blend in at the party when he meets a woman that he believes he has a connection with. “I am in a tailspin. I’m lonely, I’m depressed,” he tells the shell-shocked partygoer. At first receptive to his attention, the brutal honesty falls upon deaf ears and the anguish of rejection that washes over the actor’s face as the woman quickly exits their conversation is touching, reminding viewers of their own lamentable attempts at connection with the opposite sex dwelling in their past. Here’s to hoping that Reilly continues to find work in movies as good as Cyrus, a film that seamlessly blends drama and comedy into a refreshingly honest look at relationships featuring characters that act and react honestly, whatever situation they are put in.