Cyrus (Jonah Hill, left) and John (John C. Reilly, right) are rivals for the love of Molly (Marisa Tomei, centre) in the quirky comedy-drama Cyrus. ((Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight))

We now have ample proof that Jonah Hill is not funny (exhibits A, B and C: Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek). But the young actor does creepy exceptionally well.

We have ample proof that Jonah Hill is not funny. But he does creepy exceptionally well.

In his new film, Cyrus, Hill plays a devious, mother-fixated slacker who would give Oedipus the shivers. Cyrus (Hill) is 22 and still lives with his mom, the attractive Molly (Marisa Tomei). I know, in the Failure to Launch era, that's nothing out of the ordinary. But, like a small child, Cyrus is also excessively jealous and possessive of her. The two share an unwholesome relationship in which she pampers his sensitive, creative side – he’s a synth-rock composer – while he scares away her potential lovers.

Then along comes a stubborn rival for Molly’s affections. John (John C. Reilly) is a divorced film editor who has been carrying a torch for his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), for the last seven years. That changes, however, after he meets Molly at a party and the two instantly click. Facing the possibility of finally finding new love, John isn’t about to let some emotionally underdeveloped man-child ruin his chances. When he discovers the outwardly welcoming Cyrus is secretly trying to undermine him, a battle of wits ensues.

Reilly, who did a great man-child spoof in Step Brothers, gets to be semi-mature this time out. Although the movie begins with some Apatow-ish comic tropes – John is caught twice with his pants down and enlivens the party with a drunken singalong to the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me – he soon shows his sophisticated side. He’s willing to be honest and upfront with Cyrus about his feelings for Molly, even if the kid weirds him out.

John can’t get a handle on this mama's boy — and neither can we. Writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass flirt with icky innuendo, but also suggest that Cyrus is suffering from arrested development. Like a little boy encased in the body of a hulking young adult, he eats his peanut butter sandwiches without crusts and needs to be comforted when he has night terrors. His childish behaviour includes stealing and hiding John’s shoes.

The film doesn’t seem interested in exploring why Cyrus has turned out this way. And we learn even less about Molly. Cyrus’s father is alluded to briefly as "out of the picture," but surely there have been other men in Molly’s life before John. There’s no indication, however, that she’s aware of her son’s jealous side. How did she allow Cyrus to become so needy and what does it say about her own needs? Tomei struggles with her underwritten role and seems just as uncertain and uncomfortable in her scenes with Hill as we are.

Cyrus’s emotional retardation sounds sad, but the Duplasses play it for laughs. We’re meant to be amused by Hill’s character and see the movie as just a quirky redrafting of the classic love triangle. The screenplay makes occasional attempts to be thoughtful, but the situation itself hasn’t been very carefully thought out.


Molly and Cyrus have an awkward encounter with John and John's ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener). ((Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight))

This is the first studio picture for the Duplass brothers, who helped define the no-budget, improv-driven "mumblecore" esthetic in films like The Puffy Chair and Baghead. Cyrus feels less like mumblecore with money and stars, however, than like a generic American independent comedy from a decade ago. Jas Shelton’s self-consciously edgy camerawork, with its unnecessarily agitated movements and abrupt zoom-ins, could be a parody of indie filmmaking.

Then there’s Keener, queen of the indies, who graces the film with her presence the way Judi Dench brings a touch of class to a British production. As John’s unusually solicitous ex-wife, she gives us one of her less astringent performances. Then again, how could she not feel compassion for Reilly’s lovable, woolly-headed shlub, a guy who self-deprecatingly describes himself as Shrek?

The film’s keystone performance, though, is Hill’s. And if, like the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers, he excels at making our flesh creep, he’s not as skilled at showing his character's scared inner child. Perhaps a more boyish, vulnerable actor could make us feel pity for Cyrus – Hill’s Superbad co-star, Michael Cera, springs to mind. As it is, the plump, prissy-lipped Hill kept reminding me of the Roman Emperor Nero, who also had a twisted relationship with his mother (not to mention musical pretensions).

When John first hears one of Cyrus's synthesizer compositions, he makes the innocent remark that it sounds like Steve Miller. "No it doesn’t," Cyrus replies curtly. Actually, it does. The Duplass siblings also seem to be deceiving themselves. They think they’ve made a clever, funny movie, when they’ve really created something unsavoury and disturbing.

Cyrus opens in Toronto on June 25.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.