[15 March 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Get your ass of that couch,” instructs Sharon (Susan Sarandon), “Fix the shutter.” On the other end of the phone line, her 30-year-old pothead son Jeff (Jason Segel) looks exasperated. Yet again, she’s telling him to head to the hardware store for wood glue and complete the task she’s been asking him to get done for months. He sighs, she rolls her eyes, and when he hangs up, Jeff does indeed make his way to the bus stop.
For Jeff, it’s a first step of several in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, another movie by Mark and Jay Duplass about stunted young men and the women who put up with them. In the ever-expanding-and-contracting world of movie man-children, Jeff comes equipped with a couple of advantages, his affection for the movie Signs and his terrible brother, Pat (Ed Helms). He establishes the first right off, detailing his knowledge of the film and its “message”, that is, if you only pay attention, everything means something, and especially, “everything comes together in the perfect moment at the end.” The second advantage is indirect, as Jeff’s rudimentary generosity and childish optimism look better when compared to his selfish, mean, and fearful brother.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home emphasizes this comparison right off, setting Jeff in his mother’s suburban Baton Rouge basement against Pat in his kitchen, having breakfast with his wife Linda (Judy Greer). While Sharon (beautifully performed by Sarandon) sets up Jeff’s trajectory (he will get off the couch), Linda can only look baffled by Pat’s. Their morning conversation sounds typical enough: he’s trying to convince her that they can afford a new Porsche. As she makes the arguments against it, arguments she’s plainly made more than once before, he reveals that in fact, the deed is done and the car is in the driveway. Her eyes fill with tears. It’s easy to dislike Pat.
It’s easier still, as the film cuts back to Jeff, making his way toward Pat. His route is initiated when he comes upon his own first “sign”, namely, the name “Kevin”, uttered by an abusive wrong-number caller. He suspects that he’s been deposited into his own M.Night Shyamalan movie when, on the bus to the hardware store, Jeff spots a young man’s basketball jersey, emblazoned with the very name he seeks. He pursues the kid (Evan Ross) off the bus and into an “urban” (yes, black) area, complete with Red Bull and a basketball court and an abandoned building in which to smoke weed. His subsequent battering passes here as another sign, or maybe just a way to get him down the street to the Hooters where Pat is conducting a business lunch.
Now joined for the duration of Mark and Jay Duplass’ film, the brothers engage in a series of haphazard and mightily convenient adventures, building toward a “perfect moment” that’s predictable in the abstract, if not the particulars. They observe and criticize one another for the obvious reasons, they get into various tangles with passersby, and they find that Linda is not so complacent as she seems.
Neither is their mother, though her plot takes place in what seems another world entirely. Working as a drone in an office shaped by cubicles, Sharon is bothered throughout the day by an instant messager claiming to be her secret admirer. As Sharon peeks over her cubicle walls, haunts the coffee room, and gossips with her very sincere coworker (Rae Dawn Chong), she’s flirting with the idea that her life needn’t be defined by her bad job and her disappointing sons. But if Sharon has her own experiences and needs (apart from fixing the shutter), she’s also burdened with a perspective that’s not so different from its first and primary alignment with Jeff. That is, the horizons are limited and the uptake is slow.
Both Sharon and her sons (and Linda too) have settled. As Sharon explains to Pat, hoping to enlist his help with Jeff, “He’s stuck, honey.” And indeed, much of the film’s framing underlines how stuck they all are, from the basement’s low ceiling and the darkness of restaurant booths, to a motel’s narrow hallway and the utter immobility of stalled traffic. As Jeff chases after “Kevin”, so Pat finds a mission in following Linda (whom he imagines is having an affair), and Sharon imagines an adventure in driving to New Orleans. That Linda’s potential escape is even less hopeful—the coworker who’s romancing her (Steve Zissis) is entirely dreadful—ensures that she remains a plot element in Pat’s journey rather than someone embarked on her own.
The lack of imagination embodied by Sharon and her boys aligns Jeff, Who Lives at Home with previous Duplass brothers’ movies, those mumblecorey surveys of daunting frustrations, feckless yearnings, and minor revelations. As before, it’s possible to read the movie’s central perspective both ironically and earnestly. If their illogic and downright stupidity are symptomatic, but not necessarily causal, Jeff and Pat might be subjects of audience concern as well as objects of comedy.
This formula makes fun of familiar plots even while it uses them, plots premised on family bonding and forgiveness and all ending well. Even as Jeff insists that “All this randomness is leading somewhere,” the movie is looking stuck.