The Duplass brothers make the humdrum hum with low-key panache, as they consistently find beauty and truth in everyday occurrences that befall an emotionally addled mother - Susan Sarandon - and her two disparate sons - Jason Segal and Ed Helms.
What a difference a day makes, especially when it’s being overseen by filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. Lives and marriages can be saved, romances ignited and destinies met, all within the space of one extraordinarily ordinary afternoon like the one transpiring in the deceptively simple “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”
True to their trademark vérité style, the siblings make the humdrum hum with low-key panache, as they consistently find beauty and truth in everyday occurrences that befall an emotionally addled mother and her two disparate sons during what dawns as another stagnant day in Baton Rouge, La.
Mom (Susan Sarandon) and her eldest son, Pat (Ed Helms), head off to their dreary jobs while youngest son, Jeff (Jason Segel), assumes his normal place on the ratty couch in his mother’s basement, where he beings his daily musings on the ramifications of destiny and fate as they relate to his favorite film, “Signs.” How, you say, can anyone take a Mel Gibson movie directed by the much lambasted M. Night Shyamalan seriously? Well, Jeff has found a way, and it’s convinced the eccentric 30-year-old that he should hold tight in his subterranean hovel until he receives an omen directing him toward his true purpose in life. It finally arrives via a succession of phone calls, one from his mother demanding that he go out and purchase a tube of glue to repair a broken door slat, and the other, a wrong number placed by a person looking for a guy named Kevin.
Normally, I’d write such silliness off as just another lame attempt by indie filmmakers to deify slackerdom as some profound protest against the establishment. But, then, those types of movies don’t have someone as loveable and charming as Segel to make the nonsensical feel noble. Before you know it, you’re having what he’s having. And I don’t mean a couple of powerful bong hits. No, I mean Jeff’s wide-eyed openness towards life and the infinite possibilities that reside behind every mundane occurrence. If he gets an impulse, he goes with it, like when he boards a bus to go get the glue and instantly spots a guy wearing a basketball jersey with “Kevin” scripted across the back. “It’s a sign,” he says to himself, and promptly beings following the dude into one of Baton Rouge’s diciest neighborhoods.
Thus begins what will become a surreal reality for Jeff, his brother, Pat, and their mother, Sharon, as “fate” conspires to draw them all together above Lake Pontchartrain during the afternoon rush. What leads them all there is the meat of a movie that fluently blends humor and drama in a manner that leaves you both moved and thoroughly entertained.
The best parts, though, belong to Helms and Segel, as siblings who share nothing beyond DNA. Where Jeff is a laidback, optimist who always sees the best in everyone, Pat is an uptight prig, more interested in money and status than tending to his beautiful, but flustered, wife, Linda (the always superb Judy Greer). Those differences come hilariously to a head after the bros hook up outside a Hooters and embark on a fateful ride in Pat’s brand-new Porsche that brings them in contact first with a tree, and then, the realization that Linda might be having an affair.
As they conspire to confirm their suspicions, Pat’s defenses begin to unravel and his jealousy toward his brother’s no-pressure lifestyle becomes painfully clear. It’s a slow transformation that Helms handles with aplomb, seamlessly oscillating between slapstick and pathos, as he proves he’s every bit as good at drama as he is at comedy. His Pat is mean, self-centered and utterly unlikable, yet Helms never fails to make him sympathetic.
The real surprise emerging from all the mayhem is Sarandon, who does some of the best acting of her career as a widowed office drone who suddenly springs to effervescent life once she begins receiving notes from a secret admirer. Who that suitor proves to be will blow your mind almost as powerfully as the circumstances that finally bring the pair together.
While Jeff’s “magic” doesn’t have a direct effect on Sharon like it does on Pat, you sense his metaphysical presence every step of the way. And as the film builds in intensity and shifts from light comedy to clever profundity, Jeff’s actions seem less like a slacker and more like a seer. Same for the Duplass brothers, who tie their seemingly disjointed observations neatly together for a zinger of an ending that will have you going, “WOW!”
JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME (R for language including sexual references and some drug use.) Cast includes Jason Segel, Ed helms, Susan Sarandon and Judy Greer. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass. 3 stars out of 4.