Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass have made their name as filmmakers to this point by examining uncomfortable personal relationship dynamics and exaggerating all things awkward that arise in those situations. With “Jeff, Who Lives At Home,” they focus on life’s essential relationships with an entirely different sense of purpose and humor appears to be a secondary objective.
With Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon, the Duplass brothers have assembled more star appeal than they’ve ever had to work with before. “Cyrus” boasted an impressive cast in John C. Reilly, Marissa Tomei and Jonah Hill, but Segel and Helms in particular are two of the hotter names in mainstream comedy right now, both in film and television. Their casting here is not necessarily off, but misguiding to average viewers who might stumble across this title in their search for a night of gut-busting comedy.
Segel plays the title character, a 30-something who lives in his mother’s basement and likes to get high. Nothing novel there, except that this doesn’t define Jeff at all. He spends the first five minutes at home, but the rest of the film takes place out and about in Baton Rouge as he pursues a mysterious “Kevin” and helps his brother, Pat (Helms), uncover if his wife is having an affair. The story plays out nothing like its title implies, which in the right light should be viewed as refreshing if not the entire point of the movie.
The film is built around Jeff’s perspective on life, that everything is connected, there are no coincidences and that signs exist all around us that point us to our fate. Obviously, as a man without a job living in his mother’s basement, that outlook hasn’t gotten him anywhere, but he also carries an abundance of optimism and doesn’t sweat much of anything.
Taking course in one day, Jeff’s adventure begins when he receives a call from a wrong number at home from someone angrily asking for Kevin. Jeff interprets this a sign, and on the bus on the way to Home Depot, he encounters a young man wearing a basketball jersey with “Kevin” on the back. Convinced, he follows him, a choice that ultimately leads him to cross paths with his older brother, who is obsessed with material objects and has lived his life the expected, methodical way, which given his marital problems, hasn’t done so well for him either.
When Pat and Jeff spot Pat’s wife, Linda (Judy Greer), in a car with another man, Pat gets wildly jealous and enlists Jeff to help him spy on them. It’s an unusual form of brotherly bonding, which is the Duplass’ wheelhouse, and therein lies the bulk of the humor.
Their mom (Susan Sarandon) gets her own subplot completely apart from everything else. Her work day takes an unexpected turn when a secret admirer begins to drop her notes and instant messages at work. Suddenly she’s confronted with the idea of not being as old as she feels.
True to how Jeff sees things, nothing in the film ends up being coincidence, even if there’s no other possible explanation for it. How does Jeff’s pursuit of Kevin lead him to exactly where he runs into Pat? How do Jeff and Pat end up coming upon Linda? That’s just the beginning, too.
The opportunity for situational comedy waits around every possible corner in this movie, but the Duplass brothers aren’t interested in it. Almost all of the humor emerges naturally from the progression of the story, which, to be honest, is instigated by the exaggerated traits of the characters.
Pat is the main ruckus-causer, a role that doesn’t fully suit Helms. He’s much better at playing the lovable loser than the thoughtless, jealous jerk type, but when the script finds tender moments he makes them feel natural. Segel, however, is terrific as Jeff. He could have a bit more of a full-on weirdness about him, but as a romantic and somewhat naive type, he’s perfect. Their clashing outlooks make for most of the film’s drama.
Undoubtedly, as filmmaking brothers this had to have been a personal projects for the Duplasses. All the members of this family maintain an appearance of being harsh toward each other, but they’re all written in a way that sees them drawn to each other, like there’s a definite need to be connected as family, and the events they endure play with these ideas of familial obligation and kinship, even while the focus of the film stays on testing Jeff’s thesis about the connectedness of the universe.
In a way, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” isn’t a misleading title, and the clue lies in the comma. With it, the fact that he lives at home is considered non-essential information about Jeff, but without it, it implies that it defines who he is. This is a story about Jeff, and it just so happens that he lives at home. He’s much more than that, and so is the film.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Written and Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass
Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer