What if M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” held clues to our destiny in the universe? The title character, Jeff (Jason Segel), thinks this way. That’s due to all the time the 30-year-old layabout spends smoking pot and living on the couch in his mother’s basement. A phone call (that’s likely a wrong number), where the man on the other end asks for “Kevin,” gets Jeff thinking, “What if there are no wrong numbers?” That same fateful day, when his mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who’s stuck working in an office cubicle on her birthday, asks her son to run a simple errand and buy wood glue to fix a pantry door, Jeff actually leaves the house but takes his philosophy with him.
From a bus rider named Kevin to a “Kevin’s Kandy” delivery truck, he just knows this seemingly ordinary day of random occurrences will lead him to the elusive Kevin and ultimately his destiny. Meanwhile, Jeff’s more successful brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is having martial troubles with long-suffering spouse Linda (Judy Greer), especially after he buys a Porsche before checking with the missus first. Once Pat coincidentally runs into Jeff, these couldn’t-be-more-different siblings try mending their own relationship while Pat tries getting to the bottom of his own with Linda, who may or may not be having an affair. WIll it all lead to some bigger picture with Jeff around?
With 2008’s “Baghead” and 2010’s “Cyrus” surprising in unique and satisfying ways, mumblecore-founding brothers Jay and Mark Duplass venture into more studio-comedy territory while still maintaining their signature indie sensibility as writer-directors. While “Cyrus” was able to reach a broader audience with the attraction of Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly, the film had much more going on underneath than any puerile, broad comedy. “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is the same way. It begins as a frustrating, cringe-inducing slacker comedy, as characters tend to embarrass themselves in situations, but then soon catches you off guard and grows on you. (After Paul Rudd in “Our Idiot Brother” and now Segel in this, potheads don’t get enough credit for their wisdom.)
The shaggy, seemingly on-the-fly aestheticsâ€”handheld cinematography with close-ups and crash zoomsâ€”already feel at home in a Duplass Brothers film, like long stretches of dialogue are anticipated in anything from Quentin Tarantino. Early on in the film, when the camera does zoom in and out, it feels like too much of a self-conscious technique that holds no meaning at all. Then once the narrative takes hold, one should hardly notice. The story’s small-town setting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also works as an interesting choice for the banal world that the characters live in and where Jeff seeks to find his destiny. Such overused locations as New York City or Los Angeles wouldn’t have had the same milieu.
In every screen role that finds him, Segel has an innate charm and humility, and both traits are most vital for the good-natured character of Jeff. Segel’s lumbering teddy bear/Frankenstein size (fitting into a comfy hoodie and gym shorts) makes Jeff that more of a lovable galoot. He’s not a slacker clichÃ© with his head in a perpetual cannabis haze but a lost soul whose failure-to-launch issue comes from not having found his meaning in life yet and finally learning to seize the day. Proving he will not be pigeonholed as an insecure milquetoast (a type he played so well in “The Hangover” movies and “Cedar Rapids”), Helms finds it in himself to play Pat, a real jerk of a man. Business meetings at Hooters and being the new owner of a Porsche suggest Pat is the brother that has his life more together, but he calls Jeff “Sasquatch” and ridicules him for his lofty theories. Sporting a well-landscaped beard around that real set of white choppers makes the actor look appropriately smarmy, but beyond the surface, Helms molds Pat into a man of self-conflict that burdens his wife. Whatever was performed off the cuff (if not most of it) seems to work between Segel and Helms especially. Finally, let’s not forget Greer, as Pat’s wife Linda, who suffers bottled-up emotions of her own. Making sure Linda never comes off as a shrew, Greer knows just how to play her scenes without a false note. Last seeing her in last year’s “The Descendants,” be grateful this gem of a character actress keeps turning up in films worthy of her talent.
On a screenwriting level, the coincidences might be considered absurd contrivances. But on a deeper level, those coincidences don’t feel contrived but make sense when the film is about the interconnectedness of life. Where the film ends up going could also be considered a deus ex machina, but it just stays faithful to its philsophical ideasâ€”that everyone and everyone is interconnectedâ€”and comes together in an uplifting, everything-happens-for-a-reason tidiness. That’s not to say the film plays it safe or patly ties everything up in a neat bow because it’s not only amusing but inconspicuously moving, gentle, and surprisingly introspective. No one goes through a drastic change or becomes a saint, but everyone feels less stuck than how we first found them at the start. The small level of poignancy “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” reaches doesn’t hit us over the head; Michael Andrews’ music score is just subtle enough without screaming “Feel, will you?!” and we can already feel the emotions in our gut.
A subplot involving the widowed Sharon receiving flirty instant-messages at work from a secret admirer is a most welcome add-on to her sons’ personal journeys. Feeling “old and flabby” at her age, the fact that someone notices Sharon gives her hope and a feeling of self-worth. Also, with her frustration of still housing one of her adult sons, she deserves her own moment of recognition. Sharon taking a moment to stare at a photo of sublime paradise is also a nice telling detail of her spoken dreams of being “kissed under a waterfall” (which is later fulfilled in a sweet moment of improvisation). Sarandon is excellent in the part, and there’s a surprising payoff, loveliness, and sense of hair-down freedom to her character’s thread.
Though “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” feels slighter than it could have been with even more fleshing out of its characters, the film at least has affection and respect for the people involved in the story. There’s actual tension in following these characters and where fate will take them. It’s not a big spoiler, but Jeff does eventually get around to buying the wood glue and fixing the broken door slat. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for Jeff fixing his life too, or maybe it’s not, but you come away liking and believing in Jeff. This is a little film that works in a big way.
82 min., rated R.
GRADE: B +