I didn’t quite know what to expect from Jeff, Who Lives at Home. I haven’t seen the other directorial efforts of the Duplass brothers, but they’ve already built quite the reputation for themselves in the film world. Writer/directors of The Puffy Chair, Baghead, and Cyrus, the duo are widely acknowledged as key players in the mumblecore movement of the early 2000s. (Apart from being a writer, director, and producer, Mark Duplass has also broken out as an actor, starring in the FX series “The League” and one of my favorite films at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the time travel comedy/drama Safety Not Guaranteed.)
With established vets like Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon at their disposal, the brothers eschew brash, obvious studio comedy in favor of something a much more personal, and as a result they’ve crafted one of the most heartwarming films I’ve seen in a long time.
Jeff (Segel) is thirty years old, but he still lives in his mother’s (Sarandon) basement. He doesn’t have a job and spends most of his time smoking weed and watching infomercials. He’s perpetually waiting for a sign, something that will spur him into action or tell him the next path he should travel in life. His mom, Sharon, is a widow who works in a cubicle, her sense of humor worn down by her son’s seeming lack of motivation. Her other son, Pat (Helms), is a mid-level businessman whose marriage is falling apart, and she enlists his help to give Jeff the kick in the butt needed to get going. The brothers don’t talk much anymore, because Pat doesn’t take kindly to Jeff’s lackadaisical attitude and whimsical worldview. One day, when Sharon demands that Jeff go buy glue to fix a broken pantry door, Jeff begrudgingly complies. But thanks to what he deems “a sign,” he’s distracted from his mission and, through a series of random events, Jeff ends up getting wrapped up in Pat’s sinking marriage troubles and their family issues are explored in an adventures that takes place over the course of one day.
For a film starring two leads known for high profile comedies, this movie is surprisingly deliberate in its pacing and tone. Those searching for slapstick antics and over the top buffoonery should look elsewhere, because the brothers Duplass are far more interested in examining relationships than shenanigans. The film is often funny, but just as often, it touches on themes and ideas that have real resonance and feel genuine and truthful. A lot of movies serve as escapism, seeking to take the audience away from tangible issues and distract us from things that are possible in real life. Jeff, Who Lives at Home tackles those issues head on, but the escapist part comes in Jeff’s zen-like approach to everything. He lives the way some of us wish we could, blindly faithful that there’s some order to the chaos of the universe.
Running parallel to the brothers’ story, Sharon discovers she has a secret admirer at work. It reinvigorates her, and for the first time since her husband died, Sharon feels what it’s like to be desired again. We follow her courtship through conversations on AOL Instant Messenger, and much like the movie as a whole, the charm is in the simplicity of it; we’re just as interested as Sharon is to find out what’s going to pop up on her screen next.
The performances are excellent – not career-defining work from anyone, just a group of actors really embodying their characters in a fun and interesting way. (If I had to choose a standout, it would be Judy Greer, who plays Pat’s wife.) By the end of the movie, each character goes through a change that captures an almost ineffable zest for life that makes you want to hug those you love and gives you the feeling that everything in your own life is going to be okay. The flighty, xylophone-inspired score by Michael Andrews (who also did the moody cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” with Gary Jules on the Donnie Darko soundtrack) is equally inquisitive and playful, underscoring the hope and optimism the movie ultimately evokes.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home made me feel good…and sometimes, that’s all I need from a movie. Until next time…