Friday, March 23, 2012

JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME: Return of the Slacker


- Jeff Who Lives at Home is a refreshingly low-key comedy with a great cast - but it's also a comedy that suffers for being a bit pretentious. Now, I came away from this film with my appreciation for the writing/directing team of the Duplass brothers intact. Although I've yet to love one of their films, I appreciate the unique voice and quirky comedic sensibilities they bring to the table. However, I also wonder if JEFF is something of a step back for them, because with their last film, Cyrus, they seemed to be just on the verge of greatness. JEFF has great moments, but it also struggles with tone and theme, and comes off as a semi-rambling meditation on life, the universe, and the movie Signs.

Yes, the M. Night Shyamalan movie, Signs. Because that's how JEFF opens, with its title character - played by Jason Segel, with his usual hangdog-stoner likability, ruminating on the movie, which he is, oddly, obsessed with. Jeff is a thirty-ish slacker who lives in his mom's basement and does, well, not much. He seems to have no real job, prospects, or interests other than getting high and hanging on the couch. But Jeff does have a belief that the universe has some sort of special destiny for him. And he believes that, all around him, just-hidden signs are waiting to be discovered, so as to point him in the right direction. As the film begins, Jeff believes he may have stumbled onto a key sign. A man keeps calling his house asking to speak to someone named Kevin. Presumably it's a wrong number, but Jeff is convinced that it means something - that he is meant to find this Kevin and that in doing so his life will attain meaning. But Jeff's weird little quest gets sidetracked when he's recruited by his older brother, Pat. Played by Ed Helms, Pat is, on the surface, the kind of man that Jeff should aspire to be - he's married, holds a job, and, basically, is a grown up. But Pat's life is actually in shambles. His job is a boring sales job. He spends more money than he has to keep up with the Joneses. And worst of all, his wife, as it turns out, is cheating on him. So in between searching for any signs of the mysterious Kevin, Jeff accompanies Pat as the two play detective, snooping around to uncover the identity of the man who Pat's wife is boinking. The third piece of the puzzle is Jeff's mom, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). Sharon works in a bland, featureless office - a lifetime cubicle dweller. She seems bored by her job and by her life in general, and frustrated at how useless her son Jeff is (all she wants from Jeff is for him to fix a broken shelf, but he can barely even muster the willpower or attention span to do that). But Sharon's work-life gets a little jolt of excitement when an anonymous co-worker begins instant-messaging her, professing that he's got a crush on her. Even as her sons are out playing detective, so too is Sharon - slightly embarrassed, slightly giddy - trying to figure out which of her office mates has the hots for her.

On paper, one of the main selling points of JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME is the fantastic cast - and they do not disappoint. Segel is very good as Jeff - he makes Jeff likable, funny, and easy to root for despite Jeff being, basically, a delusional loser. In many ways, Jeff feels like an older version of head-in-the-clouds Nick from Freaks & Geeks (played by Segel) - a guy who in some respects is annoying, but whose sheer obliviousness is ultimately endearing. Helms is also really good, and he has a nice, love/hate chemistry with Segel. I will say though, the film's two leading women are perhaps also its surprise stars. For one, Susan Sarandon steals the movie as the put-upon mom of the Helms and Segel. Her excitement over her digital office flirtation is palpable, and she, of all the cast, best portrays her character's existential crisis. The Duplass brothers try to craft a script rife with depth and pathos, but only Sarandon 100% conveys all of those intended layers of meaning. And it's her story that best combines the quirky with the mundane. That said, Judy Greer is also - again - a scene-stealer, as Pat's frustrated wife. Greer, so good recently in The Descendents, plays a similar character here, but gets more screen time in which to develop her character. She's a standout, with some great back-and-forths with Helms and her usual spot-on comic timing.

When JEFF sticks to being a quirky slice-of-life comedy, it's a lot of fun. I thought the film worked well as a portrayal of a family in which each member - though different on the surface - is trying to fill some sort of void in their going-nowhere lives. There are a lot of great little comedic moments when Jeff and Pat are tailing Pat's wife, and also when we check in on Sharon and her charmingly low-key office drama. However, the movie struggles to figure out what it is, exactly, that ties these characters and their stories together. Rather than just stick to slice-of-life stuff, the film eventually shifts gears and takes on a metaphysical tone that strives to be profound - going for a transcendental "everything is connected" vibe. And I just don't know that the film pulls it off. Whereas a movie like Little Miss Sunshine combined comedy and pathos with elegance and real human emotion, JEFF's big finale feels contrived and very much out-of-left-field.

Too many elements of JEFF feel random for random's sake, and, ultimately, the movie strays too far from its original premise about a slacker looking for meaning. The movie starts out being about Jeff, and ends on Jeff, but little of the in-between feels like real progression, and so the ending doesn't feel earned. At the same time, Jeff is a pleasant watch, and the Duplass' gift for naturalistic dialogue and well-observed humor is evident even when the movie, overall, begins to feel a little aimless. Though the movie is flawed, there is still that unique voice at its core, and I'm curious to see what these guys can do when they really bring their A-game.

My Grade: B

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