The unlikely stardom of Jonah Hill

In the indie "Cyrus" (not as in Miley!) the portly actor showcases subtle chops that go way beyond "funny fat guy"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 16, 2010 4:55PM (EDT)

Jonah Hill
Jonah Hill

I'm grateful to report that the new comedy "Cyrus," from the indie-film writing and directing brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, has nothing whatever to do with Miley Cyrus. Whether any possible audience confusion, or the teenage Cyrus' recent upskirt-photo kerfuffle, will help or hinder the movie is not yet clear. An enjoyably off-kilter romantic comedy with a touch of madcap farce and just a hint of darkness, the Duplasses' "Cyrus" could prove to be welcome summer counterprogramming for adult audiences driven away by Hollywood's aggressive seasonal stupidity. It also showcases Jonah Hill, who is both an intriguing new star and a  fascinating, even perplexing phenomenon.

A big, bulky guy with a childlike moon face and an almost affectless demeanor, the 26-year-old Hill is right on the verge of becoming one of the most unlikely leading men in recent history. He first attracted attention in a string of movies produced or directed by Judd Apatow, with a co-starring role in "Superbad" and smaller supporting parts in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Funny People." Seeing Hill's performance in "Cyrus," where he plays the maladjusted and devious adult son to Marisa Tomei's single mom, right after his more straightforward turn in the underappreciated Apatow-stable flop "Get Him to the Greek," made me appreciate the subtlety and craft of his acting.

Hill has pretty much avoided playing the stereotypical funny fat guy so far in his career, and his two 2010 roles both use and abuse that archetype. He's meant to be the likable, identifiable moral center of "Get Him to the Greek," the normal shmoe thrust into the world of Russell Brand's crazy English rock star. In "Cyrus," his eponymous character is both villainous and pitiable, but hardly ever likable and not at all easy to read.

The Duplass brothers, after making a couple of terrific but marginal festival-circuit indies (notably the über-indie road movie "The Puffy Chair" and the horror spoof "Baghead"), have lurched a few steps toward Apatow's territory with "Cyrus," which stars Tomei and John C. Reilly as second-chance lovers verging on middle age. Yes, I must agree that this is yet another comedy about an unkempt, shlubby guy who mysteriously attracts a hot woman. All I can tell you in this case is that Reilly's a good enough actor to make his depressed, divorced loser character (conveniently also named John) radiate a shambling charisma -- and that Tomei's Molly, although a beautiful woman, also has some odd and even offputting qualities.

John's worried ex-wife (the indie-ubiquitous Catherine Keener, funny in a modest supporting role) has shoveled him to a party where he's generally making an ass of himself, at least until Molly discovers him peeing in the bushes. In fact, her first line is "Nice penis!" She gets to know John and his aforementioned member pretty well over the next few nights -- but only at his place, and she's always gone well before dawn. Tormented, John follows her home, wondering if he's going to meet a cuckolded husband with a baseball bat. Of course, he meets Cyrus instead.

A 21-year-old aspiring musician who's apparently been both home-schooled and coddled well beyond the single-parent norm, Cyrus is a striking combination of silliness, intelligence and menace. From Oliver Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle to John Candy and Chris Farley, movie history is full of large actors who've made their girth work for them. For reasons I'd need to exhume Dr. Freud to understand, we find fat men both comic and threatening, and consciously or not, Hill grasps this. (It's not like this is some 20th-century development, either; Shakespeare wrote Sir John Falstaff as a tragicomic fat guy.)

When he first meets John, Cyrus seems normal or nearly so -- just a little intense and socially awkward, one of those people who doesn't quite have an autism-spectrum disorder but might be a few clicks in that direction. When Cyrus plays some of his hard-beat techno music for John, Hill's total deadpan is hilarious, but not for reasons I can quantify or even describe.

So John and Cyrus meet, everything seems OK, Molly is immensely relieved and they all live happily ever after. Right? Well, no, of course not.  John's shoes disappear overnight, Cyrus denies knowing anything about it and of course Molly sides with her son. Like all the Duplass brothers' films, "Cyrus" is essentially a work of collective guided improvisation, so both Hill and the directors deserve full credit for the gradual revelation of Cyrus' character. Naturally, I shouldn't give too much of this away, but let's just say that the almost-Asperger behavior is deceptive, and so too is Cyrus' welcoming embrace. He is demonically and single-mindedly devoted to driving John out and reclaiming Molly's full attention.

Despite making a movie with recognizable stars, a much larger budget and Ridley and Tony Scott aboard as producers, the Duplasses stick pretty close to the herky-jerky hand-held camerawork and the focus on uncomfortable dramatic moments that made them indie darlings in the first place. In the second half of "Cyrus," the movie settles into a slapsticky pitched battle between John and Cyrus that feels surprisingly conventional -- even, dare I say, heartwarming -- but retains an edge and sensibility that's miles away from any nominally similar Hollywood movie.

As viewers, of course we're rooting for Tomei and Reilly's immensely likable sad-sack couple to make it, but in an odd way we're also rooting for Cyrus. If John and Molly stand for our better natures, Cyrus stands for our self-loathing and our lies. If he can find some shards of redemption, then so can anybody.

It's almost too obvious an issue to raise, but when watching Hill you have to wonder whether a woman of comparable size, no matter how talented, would ever get the same opportunities. Historically, of course, the answer is no (although larger actresses have fared much better on television). It might still be no, although change is definitely in the air; I'm not sufficiently clairvoyant to forecast the future careers of, say, Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe. (Not to open a different can of worms, but are large women of color somehow more acceptable?) On the other hand, any director who cast a big gal in a role as dastardly and damaged as Cyrus would get pilloried for it. In the rat's nest of contemporary culture, male characters still have more paths open to them.

"Cyrus" opens June 18 in New York and Los Angeles; June 25 in Boston, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, Toronto, Washington and Austin, Texas; and July 2 in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Montreal, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., St. Louis, Seattle and Vancouver, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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