American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Marisa Tomei plays warm and friendly as well as anyone, and those qualities are essential to “Cyrus,” a film about her grown son and her new boyfriend waging what amounts to war over the possession of her body. There’s no incest, but a photo in her bedroom suggests the son was still getting to second base well into his adolescence. The boyfriend is pathetically happy to get on base at all, and this creates a comedy of awkwardness, private thoughts, passive aggression and veiled hostility. All Molly (Tomei) wants is for everybody to like one another and get along.
Her boyfriend John (John C. Reilly) is fine with that goal, but her son Cyrus (Jonah Hill) is jealous and possessive, and very intelligent about how to use his feelings in a sneaky way so it’s not always obvious what he’s up to. Not obvious to Molly, anyway, because she doesn’t really want to know. More obvious to John, who’s on such thin ice he’s slow to admit how unpleasant the situation has become.
I can imagine how a sex comedy could spring from this premise or even an oedipal drama. What’s intriguing about “Cyrus” is that way it sort of sits back and observes an emotional train wreck as it develops. The movie doesn’t eagerly jump from one payoff to another, but attunes itself to nuance, body language and the habitual politeness with which we try to overlook social embarrassment. With only three people, however, it’s a problem when one is deliberately creating embarrassment.
Jonah Hill, who is a fairly large man, is able to morph himself somehow into a big baby here; he cleverly uses immature conduct to excuse inappropriate behavior. When he hugs his mommy, for example, there’s the not-so-slight suggestion that he does so not as her son but as her smoocher. There’s no suggestion that actual sex has ever been involved, but to poor John (and to us), he’s over the top. Molly seems oblivious.