By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
In a meta cosmic world, perhaps the fact that we view, nay, behold a film about a man hell-bent on receiving some otherworldly sign … is a sign unto itself. For, yea, it has come to pass that the universe of Jeff, Who Lives at Home is its own microcosm, created by those writer/director brethren gods who call themselves “Duplass.” Verily, they are hospitable gods who treat us righteously and, upon our imminent departure from their gentle sphere, just may bestow upon us a parting gift of mind-altering self-knowledge. Or maybe, after the final credits, we’ll take heed of the mystical sign “EXIT,” and do just that … with big, goofy smiles plastered all over our respective faces.
Boy, oh boy, have these filmmaker boys grown up. From the mumblecore beginnings of Jay and Mark Duplass’ The Puffy Chair and Baghead, to their prior feature Cyrus (exhibiting a frantic oscillation between studio mainstream and indie), we’ve arrived at this latest venture, their very best yet. With the movie’s mix of veteran actors, a strong script that’s beautifully and purposely calibrated, and a directorial eye that maintains a consistent vision, we should all visit Jeff … even though he most certainly lives at home, and in his mother’s basement, no less.
This magical comedy opens with the titular Jeff (Jason Segel), a thirty-year-old human plush toy, soft and malleable, who’s stuck in neutral. His mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) asks Jeff to run a simple errand: Please buy some wood glue to fix the shutter in the kitchen. But even that small task requires an effort that Jeff may not be able to muster, given his commitment to detecting a sign-on-high from who-knows-where. In between bong hits, he records his thoughts and studies the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs, hoping to glean the one that’s specifically meant for him. When someone calls and asks for “Kevin,” wrong number or not, Jeff believes that this is the message he’s been waiting for. And off he goes into his day, believing that the universe will soon reveal its ultimate secrets contained in the name “Kevin.” Even his snide brother Pat (Ed Helms) can’t dissuade Jeff from advancing determinedly along this, his most holy of prophetic paths.
In a wink to Signs‘ crop circles, while these three dysfunctional family members each travel in a circuitous fashion around their town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, wherever they go, they can’t help bumping into each other. Though they don’t get the message, we do: their fates, whatever they may be, are inextricably bound together.
It turns out that Jeff isn’t the only one who’s emotionally impoverished. Sharon is crushingly sad and lonely, feeling the hours tick away in her drab cubicle at her civil servant job, wondering if that’s all there is. Until she, too, is confounded by a mystery … she may have attracted a secret admirer. While she’s suddenly shocked into a vague promise of love, Helms’ Pat, a derogatory sneer all but permanently freezing his upper lip, realizes that his wife Linda (Judy Greer) may soon be filing for divorce.
Perfect in its interlocking parts, the ensemble is gloriously strong. When the brothers finally move past their surface dislike of each other, we get to peek at their fragile hearts lying directly under the skin. The Duplass’ seem to have no problem directing and/or writing for either gender, with all three women (Sarandon, Greer and Rae Dawn Chong) allowed frequent opportunities to fully express themselves.
The comedy deftly juggles the absurd, the sensitive and the slapstick, intermittently incorporating sharp pricks of drama. We’re included as well, the filmmakers slyly nodding to the fact that we, too, may ruminate on the question of fate versus coincidence, guilty of over-analyzing this small event or that tiny mishap. Or trying without success to read into the vast abyss of the existential “why” … and don’t even get me started on the Delphic importance of misplacing my keys last week.
Except for the occasional pan-cam that whiplashes between two characters, followed by an inexplicable snap zoom, operated as if a child were trying out his first X-Box controller (a technique left over from the Duplass’ previous films, including Cyrus), there’s very little to dislike. And so very much to love.
Rating on a scale of 5 Jeffs, who should seriously think about leaving home: 4
Release date: March 16, 2012
Written and Directed by: Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass
Cast: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong
Running Time: 83 minutes