A cosmic wake-up call for 'Jeff, Who Lives at Home'
It's obvious Jason Segel has a face for comedy. He's got a lumpy, sad-sack mug with a dozen inflections to register disappointment, confusion and self-doubt. But as the basement-dwelling hero in the Duplass brothers' new quest movie, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Segel works his entire posture for laughs. He slumps expressively on the couch, doing bong rips and ignoring chore requests from his exasperated mother (Susan Sarandon). He cringes meekly when being scolded by his older brother (Ed Helms). And yet Segel has more range than simply being a 6-foot-4 schlemiel. Jeff is a surprisingly mutable, ultimately poignant day-in-the-life drama about a slacker who genuinely wants to stand tall.
Jay and Mark Duplass are commonly tagged as mumblecore filmmakers, but their characters aren't shoe-gazers so much as demi-adults in the process of discovering, however belatedly, who they are. This film's single-day structure alternates between Jeff's increasingly meandering errand and his widowed mother Sharon's romantic misadventure at work. He's trying to grow up; she's trying to remember what that was like.
Mistaking a misdialed morning phone call for the voice of destiny (yes, he's already stoned), Jeff sets out by bus for the hardware store. When he stumbles into his brother Pat, there's the useful counterexample of a guy who's too purposeful. Wearing the emblazoned shirt of a paint store for which he's undoubtedly in sales, Pat's only desires are: A) for his wife to shut up and defer to him, and B) to buy a Porsche Boxster that's way beyond their means. Why did Linda (the fine Judy Greer) marry such a jerk? That's one of the mysteries to be solved in Jeff.
The karma-caper plot is propelled by a series of coincidences and clues that Jeff, so determined to be open, follows into a procession of blunders. Cars are wrecked, a marriage topples toward ruin, a few punches are thrown, but this is a comedy of serendipity, not aggression. He's genuinely embarrassed when Pat enlists him to spy on Linda with a possible lover, and he takes Pat's escalating tirades with shrugging acceptance (but, crucially, only to a point). You could call Jeff a comedy of maternal disappointment, but only gradually is it clear which son troubles Sharon more, which is more removed from her generous spirit.
When all their characters and coincidences ultimately converge, it ought not be surprising the Duplass brothers hand out multiple merit badges—but at least they feel earned.
This review appeared in print as "Wake and Seek: A stoner goes after his date with destiny in Jeff, Who Lives at Home."
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