‘Jeff, Who Lives at Home’: Moving

March 15, 2012


With each new movie, filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass show greater assurance as writers and directors. Though their films now feature recognizable (even well-known) actors and their production values are a little glossier, they haven’t lost their determinedly personal take on the stories and characters on which they focus.

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” may be their best film yet. A story of two lost souls who happen to be brothers and who unexpectedly find a connection with each other, “Jeff” is heartfelt, funny and continually surprising.

Jason Segel is the title character, a slacker who spends his time smoking his bong in the basement of his mother’s house. He’s waiting for … something, though he’s not quite sure what.

He seems to be working on a unified field theory of everything: that everything and everyone is connected to everything else. His guiding manifesto is the M. Night Shymalan film “Signs,” which he believes achieves a perfect moment at the end, when everything comes together to make sense.

And he’s convinced that his own life has the same kind of clues built into it, if he’d only pay attention.

So one stoned day, he does exactly that: pay attention. It starts with a wrong number call looking for someone named Kevin. Forced to leave the house to run an errand to Home Depot for his mother, he sees a young man on the bus with “Kevin” on the back of his basketball jersey and follows him. Adventures ensue.

The film toggles back and forth between Jeff and his older brother, Pat (Ed Helms). Pat, a goateed jerk, announces to his long-suffering wife Linda (Judy Greer) over breakfast that he’s bought the Porsche she specifically told him they couldn’t afford on his salary as a salesman at a paint store.

For good measure, the Duplasses also loop in Jeff and Pat’s mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who works in an office and is eventually revealed as the lonely widow she is. So she is both wary and intrigued when she starts to receive anonymous IMs from a coworker, flirting with her. It makes her nervous (is this a joke at her expense?) but a little titillated (is someone really interested in me?).

Jeff’s quest to find Kevin eventually leads him to Pat, with whom he has a fractious relationship. But the two of them wind up teaming as sleuths when their coincidental meeting allows Pat to see Linda at a gas station with another man. They wind up following her – to lunch and then to a hotel.

It’s hard to say more without giving away too much, both of the film’s unexpected moments and its humor. Suffice to say that it never goes where you expect.

It’s also not the wacky romp that commercials make it seem like. The jokes in the trailer are the film’s most obvious. There are more funny moments, but this isn’t “21 Jump Street” or anything even close.

Rather, the Duplass brothers want something deeper, something that touches the viewer somewhere other than the funny bone. They have created characters who, when described, might seem mundane, and whose activities in the movie could be similarly characterized. Yet the filmmakers dig beneath the surface of these people, finding the beating heart in each – their desires, disappointments, hopes and passions.

The film’s soul is Segel’s Jeff, a seeker who isn’t quite sure what he’s searching for, except that he’ll know it when he finds it. This character easily could have been a caricature: the goofy stoner with a glazed look who says “far out” at each coincidence. But Segel digs down; his Jeff is obviously puzzling this all out, trying to find the meaning behind the events he is convinced can’t simply be happenstance.

Helms is equally good as a guy whose own self-loathing has turned him into someone even he doesn’t quite recognize. Eventually he is redeemed and his redemption isn’t contrived or easy, but, thanks to Helms’ nuanced performance, it is touching.

Sarandon also does a lot with a little. Her face tells volumes about longing and loss. She conveys the sense of a woman whose life has taken a turn she didn’t expect or want and who fears she’ll never find her way out of the cul de sac in which she finds herself.

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is refreshing and revealing, a movie about three individuals that will strike a universal chord. Give it a chance and you’ll fall under its unusual spell.

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