Cyrus opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)

Our rating:

Cyrus the new film from Jay and Mark Duplass (Puffy Chair, Baghead), is a love-triangle comedy about a down-and-out divorcé (John C. Reilly), the woman he falls for (Marisa Tomei) and that woman’s 21-year-old son (Jonah Hill). Engaging, problematic, and occasionally suspenseful, Cyrus leaves a lot of questions unanswered about its characters and ideas and what will happen with these up-and-coming, “mumblecore” filmmakers.

John (Reilly), caught for the second time in the first 10 minutes of the movie with his pants down, meets Molly (Tomei) while he’s peeing in the host’s shrubs at a party. Being the kind of guy to mistake a woman’s order for red wine as one for Red Bull and using pickup lines like “are you ladies waiting for the bathroom,” John is justifiably shocked that Molly is interested in him. (It’s difficult, as a viewer, not to be similarly shocked.) But Tomei is such a generous actor, with such a kind face and manner, that she can make Molly’s infatuation with John seem less an act of desperation than one of patience and understanding.

Molly’s got a big problem at home: Cyrus, her obese, friendless and manipulative son. Played by Hill, who directs subdued rage at her mother’s suitor, Cyrus is an imposing figure in Molly’s modest homeand not just because of his wide, factory-pressed plaid shirts. The Duplasses have written some unfortunately silly traits into the character, like his New-Agey musical compositions, but Hill is funny and smart enough to make the character more complex than he may have been written. When John tells Cyrus that he and Molly have slept together, Cy’s response, “I accept that information,” is funny for its awkwardness, but also menacing for its vague delivery. I accept that information, he seems to be saying, and will determine your punishment accordingly.

As that punishment is meted out, the story turns from John’s relationship with Molly, to focus on his battle with Cyrus. I can’t help being reminded of Stepbrothers, in which Reilly and Will Ferrell duked it out in a mano a mano quest for domestic affection, though Cyrus is driven more by pathos than goofy gags. But the movie’s strengths are found in the stuff before all this open conflict, as John tries to determine what goes on behind closed doors between Molly and Cyrus. Without giving anything away, Reilly and the Duplasses wring some queasy tension and icky humor out of making John (and the audience) suspicious of just how Molly comforts her son after a nightmare.

The Duplass brothers are often lumped in with a certain loose-knit pseudo-collective of filmmakers. Labeled “mumblecore,” these filmmakers made barely structured character studies of people like themselves (young adult whites with middle-class backgrounds). The Brothers Duplass are the first graduates of this anti-school to have made something like a Hollywood movie with legitimate stars. They haven’t left their aesthetic behind: Cyrus is handheld, often flimsy-looking and unnecessarily filled with herky-jerky zooms.

Parts of Cyrus are fascinating if only because of context: watching Hollywood actors do their thing in something that looks like it might be a student film. If the momentum of mumblecore could propel more filmmakers to get work in these conditionson their own terms and from their own scriptswith better budgets than they can get from family loans and maxing out credit cards, then Cyrus is not only a curio but a positive harbinger. Whether there’s any reason to believe this will happen is anybody’s guess.

Something about the Duplasses on-the-fly approach lends itself to suspense, maybe because it’s reminiscent of sloppy, early Wes Craven. In The Puffy Chair, in which nothing suspenseful happens with the plot, there is an ominous feeling behind doors and around corners. So in Cyrus, when they occasionally go for suspense on purpose, it works terrifically, effortlessly well. (This makes me very curious about their comedy-horror film Baghead.)

But there is another, less fortunate constant from Puffy Chair to Cyrus, and that is the Duplasses’ dismaying, perhaps outright misogynistic, treatment of their female leads. The girlfriend role in the earlier film was a needy, critical woman who couldn’t wait to get married (thinking she was getting old at 26) who could be talked down from arguments by being told she had great tits.

In Cyrus, many of the decisions to get the plot moving forward are unbelievable and wind up making Molly look weak and stupid. John finds out where she lives by following her home after their second date, and Cyrus catches him snooping around their yard. This was a way to get an awkward scene between John and Cyrus without Molly present, but when she comes home and invites John to stay the night it seems ridiculoushe stalked her, and now he’s staying over. When John and Cyrus do battle for Molly’s affections, she’s blind to her son’s obvious manipulations of both her and her boyfriend. Tomei, smarter than the character she’s portraying, almost makes up for it with her tender performance, but the film leaves Molly in the lurch. Because they don’t think deeply about their female characters, the writer-directors have created a curious but very unsatisfying film.