Remember last season on 30 Rock when Liz Lemon briefly enjoyed fame as a romance counselor? Her shtik was to cry “Dealbreaker!” about every possible flaw in a relationship. Your husband won’t take a two-week vacation with your parents? Dealbreaker!
It’s not hard to imagine what Liz would say about the predicament in which John (John C. Reilly) finds himself in Cyrus. John’s met Molly, the woman of his dreams (Marisa Tomei), but her creepy adult son (Jonah Hill), who still lives at home, is way too tied to Mom’s apron strings. He thinks nothing of using the bathroom while his mother’s in the shower, wrestles and cuddles with her during a picnic, and warns John flat-out the first time they meet, “Don’t f--k my mom.” The dysfunction goes both ways: as evidenced by a snapshot John finds, Molly nursed Cyrus until he was practically old enough to order a shot of whisky to go with the milk. Clearly, Molly’s relationship with Cyrus should be a dealbreaker.
But that would mean Cyrus would be a 15-minute movie instead of a 90-minute one. To filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass’s credit, the implausibility of John’s sticking around as long as he does doesn’t completely undermine the film’s credibility. And John does, eventually, say enough’s enough. But the film highlights an interesting problem of many romantic comedies: making us continue to care about characters who stubbornly refuse to see that their beloved is bad news.
In literature and drama, dramatic irony, where the reader or audience knows more than the character, creates tension while investing the reader more deeply in the character’s point of view. Cyrus employs dramatic irony by letting the audience see the title character behaving manipulatively and duplicitously (telling his mom one thing and John another), while both Molly and John are not privy to the same information. But John’s best interests quickly become at cross-purposes with the film’s, as we want John to save himself by getting out of the relationship as soon as possible. The movie becomes a horror film (don’t look under the bed!) instead of a romantic comedy.
In order for the film to truly succeed, we must believe the stakes for John’s staying with Molly are as high as those for him leaving. In the opening scenes, the movie establishes that John has been deeply depressed since his divorce seven years ago, and Molly is the first woman he feels a connection with. But our evidence of John’s bliss is mostly based on montages of John and Molly walking hand in hand, and John telling his ex-wife how much he really, really likes Molly. This is all lovely, but it can’t compete with the vivid specificity of Cyrus’s creepiness (devastatingly enacted by Hill).
The 1993 Mike Myers comedy (remember those?) So I Married an Axe Murderer spoofs this cinematic convention by having Myers’s character blithely disregard the niggling detail that his dream girl happens to be a serial killer. Some Like It Hot similarly lampoons the notion of love conquering all, with Joe E. Brown unfazed to discover his inamorata is actually an inamorato. But most films adhere to the convention without acknowledging it—in Killers, for example, the fact that her husband leads a double life as a hit man gives Katherine Heigl’s character only a moment’s pause.
Cyrus successfully walks the line between dark comedy and scary movie, thanks to the performances by Hill, Reilly, and Tomei, which are uniformly great. And the suggestion, never fully developed, that John may have a too-close-for-comfort relationship with his ex-wife raises an interesting question about his own dysfunctional tendencies. If this had been explored further, it might have taken the pressure off the relationship between Molly and John. A man who calls his ex-wife in the middle of the night to complain about his love life? Dealbreaker!