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Bizarre Love Triangle

“Cyrus” plays mind games with the boundaries between comedy and drama.

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This movie is about what people think, and the crazy angles at which those thoughts intersect with what they do.

“Cyrus” comes together brilliantly during a dinner scene in Los Angeles, where a strange love triangle is forming between John (John C. Reilly), his new girlfriend, Molly (Marisa Tomei), and her adult son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). The mood is palpably uncomfortable. John, a divorced man with signs of social anxiety, showed up at Molly's house after a couple of dates without being invited; he was literally stalking her to find out why she's so touchy about having him over.

The secret turns out to be Cyrus, who, at “almost 22,” is a little old to still be living at home with mom. And yet clearly Cyrus isn't psychologically equipped for independence. He's been performing an Eddie Haskell on John since he arrived, and, at the dinner table, continues to throw out seemingly polite but extremely awkward questions, such as, “Are you gonna stay the night?”

John's challenge, and in turn ours, is to determine whether Cyrus simply has a “weird sense of humor,” as he claims. As the movie unfolds it gets only weirder. Is he being funny, or does he see John as such an unacceptable rival to his mother's affections that he must go to war with him psychologically? After a long dry spell, John just wants to get laid. “I've been in a dark existential place,” he admits at the dinner. Confronted by a calculated passive aggression, he doesn't know what to do. If he stands up for himself he risks fumbling an unbelievably lucky catch in Molly, but he isn't completely sure of Cyrus' motivation, either.

The movie plays on John's predicament and the effect his agitation has on those around him. It leads this tension into a maze of uncertainty, twisting and turning between drama and comedy to the point where we don't know what to make of it. Is the movie messing with us the way Cyrus might be with John? Long after we've figured out Cyrus, we're still trying to figure out what to make of “Cyrus.”

The movie has the look and feel of an indie, but it was produced by Hollywood elites, including Tony and Ridley Scott, who worked with another set of brothers, the decidedly unelite writer and director team of Mark and Jay Duplass, prominent figures in the so-called mumblecore movement. Mark Duplass played Ben Stiller's angry ex-band mate in “Greenberg,” and “Cyrus” is a similar film, about the extraordinarily messed-up people filling unassuming pockets of society. But it's also very different, much less interested in looking for answers than it is in probing raw behavior. We wince at the personal conduct of Greenberg because he's so lost. He's a jerk. John and Cyrus are just nice, normal people at the mercy of their emotions.

The movie has great fun early on with John's social incompetence; he veers wildly at a party while trying to meet women, either opening up too little or way too much. It's his rawness that attracts Molly, or so she says. Their coupling takes some suspension of disbelief, but Molly, like John and Cyrus, has maturity issues. She hasn't brought a man home since Cyrus was born, we learn, and we get the impression John hasn't had to form a new romantic relationship since before he married his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), who divorced him seven years ago and now rolls her eyes and holds her tongue as she tries to help. Then of course, there's Cyrus, who claims to want mom to find “the kind of love he can't give her.” It's hard to say what's more hysterical and disturbing, that he thinks such thoughts or that mom doesn't bat a lash at them.

The film is sometimes like walking unannounced into people's living rooms. You get to see the virtuous and the embarrassing, the tidy and the unkempt. Sometimes you see much more than you want. The Duplass brothers gained fame making movies about people getting together and doing the kinds of stuff people do. Hanging out, socializing, being bored, having sex. Lots of people took their clothes off, and some have accused the movement of prurient motivations. It wouldn't be surprising. Some of “Cyrus” is simply preposterous. The best parts, though, are like seeing the human psyche stark naked. (R) 92 min.

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