When James Stewart offers to lasso the moon for Donna Reed in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life, it's purely a romantic gesture. When Gru (Steve Carell), the star of the 3-D opus Despicable Me, plots to shrink the moon to a size small enough so that he can make off with it, it's clearly to show that he's the baddest dude around. After all, if a supervillain isn't feared and respected, then what good is he?
Despicable Me, one of those non-Pixar animated efforts that actually turns out to be good (happily, we've seen an upswing in the number of such worthy achievements, as evidenced by the likes of How to Train Your Dragon and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), is a witty, congenial lark that obviously won't have the staying power of Toy Story 3 but serves quite nicely as a pleasing placeholder in the cinematic summer of 2010. Sweet-natured yet also avoiding the cloying sentiment that tarnishes any great number of toon tales, this finds Gru enlisting the aid of three oblivious orphan girls to help him one-up his biggest competitor in the supervillain sweepstakes, a self-satisfied nebbish (Jason Segel) who calls himself Vector (and who comes off as the cartoon version of Kick-Ass' Red Mist).
Naturally, Gru knows nothing about children -- he places their food and water in dog bowls and sets out newspapers on the floor -- and just as naturally, the girls will teach him about family and responsibility. But that comes later. First, the movie has to let loose with a volley of inspired sight gags, a smattering of adult-oriented humor (note the homage to The Godfather), and some screen-pushing innovations to justify the 3-D expense.
The laughs don't always come easy -- but, oh, they do come -- in Cyrus, a dark comedy that repeatedly dances so close to uncomfortable territory that viewers figure it's only a matter of time before it topples right over into the taboo.
John C. Reilly, often cast as amiable if off-putting losers, plays another one, but the twist is that here, his character ends up seeming well-adjusted when compared to the title player. Reilly's John, long divorced from a more sensible person (Catherine Keener) who nevertheless has remained his friend, is depressed by his unwanted solitude and reluctantly attends a party to meet people. He hits it off with the sweet Molly (Marisa Tomei), and it looks like the start of something special. But John soon comes to discover that Molly lives with her 21-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), and the dynamics between mother and son -- these two seem really close -- makes John uneasy. But neither he nor Molly want to mess up a good thing, so they work on building a lasting union -- one that the dependent and jealous Cyrus will do anything to sabotage.
The vicious feud between John and Cyrus provides the movie with much of its black-hearted humor, and the suspense over the depths of the parent-child bond supplies the unease. Yet for all its edginess, this isn't a cruel comedy by any means. Instead, it's as much a sympathetic study of lonely souls striving to make (or keep) connections, and Tomei, Reilly and even the limited Hill (who's perfectly cast here) all deliver raw performances that help us understand their behavior. The biggest surprise regarding Cyrus, then, is that it's ultimately as sweet as it is sour.