REVIEW: Jeff, Who Lives at Home Finds Moments of Grace Amid Forced Cosmic Coincidences
You have to admire the chutzpah, if not necessarily the filmmaking skills, of Jay and Mark Duplass, the duo behind the stay-at-home-son comedy-drama Jeff, Who Lives at Home. With their 2005 debut, The Puffy Chair, the Duplass brothers took an uninteresting story fleshed out with lackadaisical dialogue and, using barely rudimentary camera skills, fashioned a noodly tale about love, life and relationships. It’s easier, maybe, to admire the Duplasses' boldness more than the actual product, but you have to say this much for them: They sure do keep moving.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the duo's fourth feature, and if their sense of craftsmanship hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds in the past seven years, it has surely improved. Which raises the question: At what point do we stop applauding the Duplass brothers for their gumption and stick-to-itiveness and admit that, maybe, their storytelling just isn’t so hot? Or that their characters sometimes seem more like groovy-cute constructs than believable people? For example, the protagonist of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, played by Jason Segel, believes that everything and everyone in the universe is interconnected. Why? Because he keeps watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs over and over again. In the movie’s prologue, we hear him in voiceover as he writes in his diary, “It keeps getting better every time I see it.”
Even if the movie’s title didn’t give it all away, you could probably guess that’s a setup for a story about a schleppy 30-ish guy who still lives at home with his mother (in this case, Susan Sarandon) but who will somehow find his purpose in life – his own sense of interconnectedness – during the course of the movie. And you’d be right. The whole conceit feels a little too manicured, too neat, even though the filmmaking around it is still pretty Duplassy – in other words, its earmarks are lots of (somewhat) shaky handheld camera moves and a decidedly uncinematic sense of composition.
But there is, at least, a story here, and Jeff, Who Lives at Home suggests that the Duplass brothers really do want their movies to be better and better. Like the duo’s last movie, the 2010 Cyrus, Jeff deals with an adult son who isn’t, for vague yet understandable reasons, quite equipped to live in the real world. Sarandon’s Sharon, hoping to give him at least some purpose in life, just wants him to help out a little around the house – she sends him on a mission to buy some wood glue to repair a cupboard door’s broken slat. Jeff heads out to the store via bus, gazing out the window in a state of semi-wonder as it makes its way past some of the nondescript gas stations and fast-food eateries of Baton Rouge. He never makes it to the store: A mishap surrounding his certainty that the name “Kevin” is somehow of cosmic significance leads him into contact with his estranged brother, Pat (Ed Helms), whose wife, Linda (Judy Greer), has just given him the gate for being a fiscally irresponsible loser. (She seems to be right.) Jeff and Pat forge a tentative reconnection, reminiscing about their dead father and gradually – perhaps too gradually – wending their way toward a climax that gives real meaning to their lives.
There’s some genuine sweetness in this story: Jeff may be a clueless galoot who overthinks everything, but he’s really searching for something here, and as Segel plays him, he does have a degree of lumpy charm. But even though much of the dialogue in Jeffis improvised, there’s still something deeply calculated about the picture: It has the distinction of feeling unshaped and sloppy and at the same time meticulously planned out in terms of what it’s asking us to feel. The picture demands that we feel protective of Jeff, and so we do. But we’re also supposed to find it gratifying when Jeff learns that the signs he’s learned to read by watching Signs really are signs. How you feel about the ending of Jeff, Who Lives at Home will depend on your capacity for cosmic delight, but I will say that one man’s date with destiny is just another man’s handy plot device.
still, there’s one area in which the Duplasses’ instincts serve them well: The movie features a subplot in which Sharon learns she has a secret admirer at work. She’s pleased and flattered, but she has no clue who it is, and she shares her flutter of confusion with her co-worker and friend, Carol (played, with marvelous suppleness and grace, by Rae Dawn Chong). Everything Sarandon does here feels believable and natural -- that’s in addition to the fact that she looks lovely, like a woman who’s happy to be living in her own skin instead of trying to shape it into a mask. She’s the kind of actress who can do a lot with a little, and it’s a pleasure to watch the way small gradations of feeling play across her face like the shifting sunlight on a half-cloudy, half-bright day. Her scenes with Chong (whom the Duplass brothers, God love them, also cast in Cyrus) are superb, and they suggest that the Duplasses' improvisational MO can work beautifully with the right kind of actors.
Like the Duplass brother's other movies, Jeff, Who Lives at Home worships at the altar of the small moment, without recognizing that some moments are just, well, small. But occasionally, the Duplasses hold their cracked magnifying glass up to something very real. And oddly enough, it’s the crack that makes all the difference.