A film review by Craig J. Koban June 20, 2012

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME jj
 

2012, R, 83 mins.

 

Jeff: Jason Segel / Pat: Ed Helms / Sharon: Susan Sarandon / Linda: Judy Greer / Carol: Rae Dawn Chong / Steve: Steve Zissis

Written and directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

I strained to find what JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME was trying to be about because, quite frankly, I honestly don’t think that the makers of the film had the foggiest idea either.  

The storyline meanders around – kind of like its slacker, basement living, and lethargic “hero” – without much of an overall plan or purpose, only to reach a would-be uplifting, thought-provoking, and deep feeling climax that conveniently ties every loose and improvised plot detail together to form a whole.  JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME tries, I think, to harness its Zen-like and destiny-centric themes of just follow the signs – no matter how unrelated – until they lead you to something big to attain a level of significance.  I just didn’t find the film to be a significant experience. 

Perhaps worst of all is that the film contains some really fine performances that are at odds with a script that can’t decide if it wants to be sobering and contemplative or just a light comedy of errors and manners that’s built upon sitcom-worthy contrivances.  JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME never really becomes an engagingly funny comedy nor a weighty drama, but rather just a bit of a schizophrenic film that contains elements we’ve seen before in abundance (the ambitionless loser that lives in his mom’s basement that's a loveable lug; his strained relationship with his more successful brother; the reconnection between the brothers as the film progresses; their semi-depressed mother who struggles to find an identity for herself…and so on).  That, and it really strains hard to find a way to tie together its entire insecurely laid out story threads to mechanically concoct a pinnacle of emotional importance in the end.  As a result JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME is a film a film that thinks it’s more serious and important than it is. 

Jeff (Jason Segel, effortlessly likeable, even when playing thirty-something slobs that we should admonish) is a down-on-his luck loafer.  He’s 30, unmarried, jobless, and, yes, lives at home in his mother Sharon’s (Susan Sarandon) basement.  He has all the time in the world to contemplate many philosophically heavy matters while pinching off his morning loaf on the toilet, like the meaning and greatness of the movie SIGNS.  In a well given monologue by Segel that opens the film, Jeff pontificates on his appreciation for M. Night Shymalan’s work while relaying why he thinks it’s not just an alien invasion film.  He thinks it’s more about how fate and destiny works in life and how seemingly unrelated occurrences and events – no matter how mundane and inconsequential – come together in the end to yield a powerful end result.  I loved SIGNS as well, but Jeff has clearly read too much into the film. 

 

 

Yet, Jeff really and truly believes in such metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, so much that when he receives a wrong-number phone call from a person looking for someone named Kevin, he makes it his day’s mission to uncover the significance of the Kevin that was requested (of course, without ever once thinking that it was just a random wrong number call to his house).  While on his journey of discovery, Jeff’s brother Pat (Ed Helms) is having his own issues: he is in a rather loveless marriage with his wife, Linda (the always great Judy Greer) who becomes enraged when Pat buys a Porsche that they can’t afford without her consent.  In the middle of the day Pat comes in contact with his brother and the two make a surprising discovery: it appears that Linda might be having an affair.  As the two go on a series of wacky misadventures throughout the day to find absolute proof of Linda’s infidelity, their mother is trying to discover the identity of a secret admirer at her work office.  If you are unable to deduce whom the admirer is within a few short minutes than you have no pulse. 

Yeah…yeah…I get it.  Those that have seen the film are trying to tell me, "But Craig, JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME is purposely directionless.  It all boils down to how one wrong phone call, a meeting with his brother, a search for truth about Linda’s supposed affair, and his mother’s brush with an admirer will all – as SIGNS has taught us – build to a crescendo of interconnectedness for all the players involved.  At this time Jeff is given the opportunity to do something special and, in turn, touch the hearts of all around him, healing them in one form or another."  Yes, I get it.  Jeff’s an unsophisticated doofus that spends a day defined by unrelated signs and peculiar, unreliable incidents, but because Jeff is so convinced that they will build to something big viewers are meant to be just as convinced as well.  I wasn’t.  The aforementioned big climax of the film is a would-be big and triumphant moment for Jeff that artificially brings all those that are close to him together for that pivotal moment where Jeff achieves a moment of greatness.  It feels less like fate and destiny, though, than it does as the result of a scattershot screenplay. 

It’s too bad, because the film sports a good cast that competently does what they can with their characters.  Segal, as stated, has a level of goofball charm and underlining sweetness that helps make Jeff something more than a pathetic strain on his mother and family.  His co-star, Ed Helms, can play frenetically anxious and easily paranoid comic characters in his sleep and is a nice foil to Segal’s more restrained turn.   Sarandon hits most of the right notes by tapping into her mother character’s vulnerability and puzzlement in terms of not only dealing with her two sons, but also with discovering who is admiring her from afar at work.  Judy Green perhaps hijacks the film away from her co-stars - as she did in certain instances in last year’s THE DESCENDENTS – with her performances as the beleaguered wife that may or may not be faithful. 

I guess, in the end, I didn’t find JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME’s fortune cookie, Yoda-like wisdom about providence and how it shapes a day riddled with haphazard and unconnected episodes to be anything gravely substantial.  The film is sweet, sporadically humorous, has a nimble pacing (it's agreeably short at just 83 minutes) and has its cast performing dutifully, but Jeff never really emerges as a figure worthy of our high esteem.  The film was written and directed by the Brothers Duplass, Jay and Mark, who previously made low-budget indie fare like THE PUFFY CHAIR, TOWELHEAD, and CYRUS.  I think that they have an affinity for being actor’s directors, but their overall style could be best labeled as obtrusively mannered.  They employ a lot of lightning fast zip pans and millisecond close-ups of actors to help accentuate their reactions to what’s transpiring around them…and they do it over and over and over again to the point of maddening frustration.   One critic I read called their style “zoom happy.”  Hmmm...I wasn’t happy while watching it.

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