[20 June 2012]
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is not a subtle film. Though the central theme involves the underlying, overlooked threads of fate that unite us all, what unfolds in these 82 short minutes is, well, quite ordinary. The film’s events last only one day, and despite the significance we’re supposed to see in these very broken people, this day feels only slightly different than the days before.
The titular Jeff (Jason Segel) is as run-down as they come. He’s a 30 something stoner living in his mother’s basement, with little to no explanation as to how he ended up the way he has. When his mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon, underutilized here) asks for him to glue a broken shutter, you’d think she asked him to climb Mt. Everest. Jeff tries to evade his mother’s request, but in the end he caves, heading out into the city for a theoretically simple trip to Home Depot. It’s not long, however, before the interconnectivity of life gets in Jeff’s way.
The film opens with Jeff detailing his love for the M. Night Shamalyan thriller Signs. (Like the director, Jeff looks like he’s seen better days.) What he marvels in is how what appears to be a character’s annoying habit—namely the daughter’s habit of leaving half-drunk glasses of water about the house—ends up being the family’s salvation from the alien invaders. No doubt Jeff arrived at this insight after several long draws from his bong, but he’s nevertheless sold.
He’s convinced there’s something more to his life than being a basement-occupying loner. That’s why, upon receiving a wrongly-dialed phone call for another Kevin, he believes a path is set before him. This path leads him to getting mugged by a Kevin and an ice cream truck with the name Kevin on its side, neither of whom appear to be the Kevin the call was intended for. This doesn’t matter, of course; all these events ping-pong Jeff into the personal turmoils of his equally estranged family members.
His brother Pat (Ed Helms) is in a marriage as lonely as Jeff’s existence. He’s so desperate for a thrill he convinces his wife Linda (Judy Greer) that, with no money down, he could score a Porsche for “basically free.” (While no indication was given, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a few bakeout sessions with Jeff.) Then, as Linda very understandably objects, he pulls the keys out of his pocket. Though he chides Jeff for not having his life together, his selfishness is at times a perfect parallel to his brother’s.
And then there’s Sharon. Frustrated both by her sons and her blasé office job, she clearly wants her life to just be normal. She wants to be content, without worrying about Jeff or the completion of simple tasks in her home. Her day is then thrown into a bit of minor intrigue when receiving an instant message from a secret admirer. Sharon feels like she’s being pranked, despite her kind coworker Carol’s (Rae Dawn Chong) support.
This storyline, while somewhat insightful, is shot in such a way that it feels tangential to the Jeff/Pat interaction. Her loneliness in the end becomes just a way for the various characters to all connect with each other.
Predictably, these three somewhat unrelated narratives all intertwine, as per Jeff’s ideals. It’s hard not to see this coming very early on: the stylistics of indie and “mumblecore” (the signature style of brother directors Mark and Jay Duplass) are the sort that favor characters like Jeff. He’s the seeming idiot who in reality has a lot to say about life; no one will respect him, even though much of the time he’s going to be right. Unfortunately, in the context of this film, you don’t feel the need to root for Jeff, as all of the events that transpire are tailor-made to his worldview. Jeff is supposed to be a loser, but despite living in his mother’s basement and smoking weed, there’s little to make him out as the sad-sack degenerate he’s supposed to be.
The “epic” conclusion, where all the family members happen to get caught in, is so obvious you can’t help but groan as they all call out to each other in excitement. Jeff’s act of heroism in this final scene loses its impact for this very reason.
But despite the script’s shortcomings, the actors do the best with what they’re given. Segel is ever-likeable, comfortably fitting into the stoner role he’s done before. Sarandon brings a real grace to her underwritten part; you can really tell how worn she is by the fading of her family’s relationships. Meanwhile, Helms really takes the movie with all he’s got, giving the best performance here. He bridges both the hopes for “real life” and the downtrodden isolation felt by his mother and brother. He’s difficult to sympathize with, for sure, but if you try you’ll find someone who really wants the best for those he loves. Even if he is dumb enough to think he can get a Porsche for next to nothing.
The Blu-Ray captures all of these proceedings with crystal-clear clarity, due in large part to the directing style of the Duplass brothers. Their camera has a documentary-like lens, with a propensity for close, at times uncomfortable angles. It also contributes to the film’s heavy “indie” feel, which is driven home by the quirky score by Michael Andrews. Jeff, Who Lives at Home may mark the first big-name billing for the Duplass brothers (who have grown in popularity due in some part to Mark’s involvement in the FX comedy The League), but this is as indie as indie gets. This aesthetic doesn’t hold back the movie at all, though it does add to its predictability.
The hopes raised in Jeff, Who Lives at Home are admirable; we all seek significance, especially on those days we think mundane. But in reality, endings aren’t as neatly wrapped as the one presented here; and even if such things do happen at times, it’s unlikely they’d be as obvious. Though Jeff feels like he’s found something big come the film’s end, his path to fate’s intertwining is as typical as a day spent smoking weed in the basement. The mystical has become the mundane.
No bonus features are included on the disc.