Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Cyrus: Fights, Dysfunction and Poor Attachment All Around

Unhealthy attachment underlies the fireworks of this summer's funniest comedy

"Cyrus" is a movie about attachment. Yes, that's right, this light-hearted comedy ends up saying a whole lot (without meaning to) about the dark side of a universal developmental process that shapes personality and sets the stage for healthy or unhealthy living.

In the opening scene we meet John (John C. Reilly). He is our protagonist, our hero, though he is less these things then he is a walking mid-life crisis - overweight, insecure, passive and whiny. Seven years ago his wife, Jamie, (Catherine Keener) divorced him because she saw John's existential tailspin around the corner. John then entered a seven-year funk - adding social withdrawal and self-deprecation to his rather long list of psychological pecadillos. However, one night, at a party, John encounters the lovely Molly (Marisa Tomei) whose tranquil, accepting ways reboot his engagement with life.

John is a new man. He and Molly quickly fall in love. The End.

Well, not quite. Enter Cyrus and a domino effect of problematic attachments. Cyrus is Molly's subtly strange 22 year-old son. The subtle strangeness comes from his unexpected choke-hold on Molly's affections. He wants Molly all to himself. But so does John. What ensues is a duel between John and Cyrus for the throne of Molly World, which escalates in intensity, hilarity, and dysfunction.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

This is a good movie. The characters hold our attention, the laugh-out-loud one-liners flow abundantly and the plot rarely stalls, but there are deeper psychological issues within the movie's message and its characters that go unarticulated. The characters are a little more screwed up then they original seem. And the movie's ultimate message is a little more maladaptive then might be expected. The reasons for this psychologically dark status quo are because of problematic attachment processes operating on three different levels. Kind of like a confusing spider web that I will proceed to untangle (hopefully). The first attachment problem is the most obvious one - between Cyrus and Molly., Then there is the slightly more sub-textual attachment issue between the men in the movie (John and Cyrus) and the women (Molly and Jamie). Then there is the level hardest to pick up between John and the audience.

Cyrus and Molly

The film would have us believe that Cyrus is the problem. And he is a problem. He clings to Molly, much too afraid of a world without her to ever let her go, which is more then a little selfish and emotionally stunted of him. Further, he manipulates, lies and sabotages in the service of keeping her, which is mean-spirited and unfair as far as John is concerned. And although Cyrus does have problems that are within his control and are his responsibility to remedy, he is not to blame. Molly is to blame.

Molly is the mother. She is responsible for establishing appropriate boundaries in the home, preparing him for life outside of the home and guiding him toward success in the world. She does the opposite of these things. She breastfed Cyrus longer then any child should be breastfed. During his adolescence and early adulthood she spent more time with him then any mother should ever spend with their developing child. And, she sheltered Cyrus from her personal identity and needs. Molly and Cyrus's strict daily regiment of photography in the park, not having brought a romantic interest home in 22 years, and her open door policy at night are things that land as punchlines. Jamie even diagnoses the relationship as harmlessly odd and cute.

But Cyrus's subsequent difficulties accepting John's entrance and moving on with his own life are neither harmless nor cute, and they are entirely predictable given such an upbringing. Toward the end of the movie lip service is indeed given to this maternal failure. Molly admits to doing "a disservice to Cyrus growing up" but this confession is vague and fleeting. The film generally holds Molly in high regard as an object of John's adoration. Further, the filmmakers mold her into a picture of high mental health as she performs her part in constructing a healthy, fulfilling relationship with John. Most surprisingly, she handles Cyrus's acting out with mostly measured, even-keeled responses. This image of her as calm, stable, 'normal' etc. seems completely inconsistent with the dysfunctional persona she seemed to enact as a mother.

We laugh at Cyrus but we should be pointing our finger at Molly.

The women versus the men

There is a problematic attachment between the men and the women in "Cyrus." It boils down to this. John and Cyrus suffer from an unbecoming degree of entitlement and immaturity. This problematic predisposition - a by-product of an unmeshed attachment - blinds them from viewing their actions as petty competitions that only serve to sidetrack them from healthy, fulfilling relationships.

The main punch line of the movie revolves around Cyrus's suffocating hold on Molly. When Molly moves closer to John, Cyrus emotionally crumbles. He pours all his energy into keeping Molly. He fakes panic attacks, hides shoes and messes with John's head. In the end his ousting of John is successful. But at no point does he access Molly's heart and consider her desires and her best interests. Only after Cyrus can no longer ignore the signals of sadness and regret emanating from Molly in the post-John-breakup phase of life does he try to make amends and undo his wicked deeds.

John's relationship to ex-wife Jamie is similarly one-way and maladaptive. She gives him pep talks and drags him to parties to meet potential girlfriends. Her ear is always open to his worries and her needs are always tabled for his momentary impulses. Even as Jamie gets increasingly swept up in preparations for her own wedding, John does not hesitate to disrupt and offend with his self-absorbed, Cyrus-related rants.

We laugh during these moments that Jamie and Molly spend stabilizing, reassuring and soothing their men. Jamie is John's lighthouse. Molly is Cyrus's rock. However, the end result is that John and Cyrus's dysfunctional relational tendencies are perpetuated by their much-too-selfless and enabling female counterparts. Jamie and Molly give and give like a psychological version of the Giving Tree. Instead, they should stop, step back and poke their the men's delusional world of dysfunction by saying, "grow up, change our relationship into a reciprical one, or hit the road." Instead, they give, and the more they give, the deeper the more ingrained the men's distorted, ego-centric and emotionally unstable world becomes.

John and the audience

Lastly, there is an unhealthy relationship between John and us, the viewers.

Intentionally or not, we as an audience undergo learning experiences in the movie theater. We root for a main character whose actions we look to emulate. This process is not nearly as profound as an infant who learns through modeling - close observation of parental figures - but it's in the same ballpark. What we get from John are not lessons of healthy living or fulfilled aspirations, but instead a dispiriting message of dysfunction.

There are various moments when John could have risen to the occasion to triumph, attaining his goals while modeling mentally healthy qualities in the process. He could have reduced conflict with Cyrus by providing assurances that separation from the nest is tough and that a son could never be replaced by a boyfriend. He could have fostered intimacy and trust with Molly by refraining from pushing Cyrus away before Molly was ready or dictating a John versus Cyrus ultimatum. John could have made these psychologically sophisticated moves, but he didn't. We could've left the theater having learned some tips for how to operate with prudence in the relational realm of life, but we didn't. Instead we shared a few cheap laughs and were reminded of high school.

This last point interests me. Why do movies so often become "negative psychology" movies that instill bad values and promote problematic behavior instead of "positive psychology" movies that envision adaptive characters achieving inspired lives?

Possible motives:
a. Dysfunction sells more tickets
b. Dysfunction is more entertaining and captivating

Is this true? Please email with alternative theories.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

more...

Subscribe to Reel Therapy

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.