Let’s Get Metaphysical!, by David Bax
After making their name with micro-budgeted independent features The Puffy Chair and Baghead, the Duplass brothers made the move to bigger stars and larger distribution with 2010’s Cyrus, starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei. Continuing that trend, they now present what appears to be their most lavish production yet (Porsche stunt-driving! A helicopter!) with the still generally bare bones and utterly winning comedy Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
The reliably lovable Jason Segel plays the titular character, who does indeed live in his mother’s basement. In truth, though, he’s only one of three leads. The story is about Jeff’s family, which is made up of him, his brother, Pat (Ed Helms) and their mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). After a wake and bake session and some time spent watching infomercials, Jeff receives a call from Sharon, who is at work, asking him to run to Home Depot to pick up some wood glue to make a repair to the house. She’s left him the money because he doesn’t have a job. The money will also be used for bus fare because he doesn’t have a car. In the course of his errand, he happens upon Pat, whose morning began with marital turmoil caused by his impulsive decision to purchase the aforementioned Porsche. Meanwhile, Sharon is getting instant messages from a secret admirer. Over the course of the day during which this entire story takes place, these stories and a few others will cross paths.
Based on that, it would seem that Jeff is the Duplasses’ entry into the “everyone is connected” indie subgenre. Films like Paul Haggis’ Crash and last year’s Matthew Leutwyler film, Answers to Nothing, have given this storytelling approach a well-deserved crummy reputation. In those cases, though, the fact of the characters crossing paths is an end unto itself. Those filmmakers are attempting to create a tapestry, not a game of dominos in which each characters has a direct and undeniable effect on the others with which he or she comes into contact.
Really, that’s what the Duplasses are doing. This film actually belongs to another, more flagrantly metaphysical subgenre. In the opening scene, Jeff speaks into a tape recorder, capturing his rambling thoughts about one of his favorite films, 2002’s Signs. That movie comes up again later, when Jeff is having a conversation with a stranger he believes he was fated to meet. Yes, these directors – paragons of the modern day American independent cinema scene – have made nothing less than an homage to an M. Night Shyamalan film starring Mel Gibson (and, as Jeff is quick to point out, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin).
Now, I’ve always quite liked Signs (even though to simply describe the things that happens in it is to make the case against it) but I realize that this sounds like a hokey novelty. Yet the directors’ pared down style and the underlying appearance of a contemporary brand of cynicism counteract anything potentially worthy of an eye roll. Segel and Helms are both veterans of an uncomfortably raw brand of comedic acting and Sarandon, for all her natural beauty, is more than talented enough to play the weathered and jaded mother and corporate drone. The Duplasses and their cast (which also includes the terrific Judy Greer) are willing to walk right up to the line of being truly bleak but their comedic timing and general goodwill toward mankind keep everything in balance.
As in Signs, the film’s events build to a grand culmination, which I won’t spoil here. Jeff, of course, believes wholeheartedly that these things were no coincidence. The more stubborn and empirically-minded Pat does not. Truthfully, I believe the filmmakers are more inclined to agree with the latter. Yet, at one point, Pat admits to Jeff that, although he doesn’t see the world the way Jeff does, he sometimes wishes he could. Jay and Mark Duplass seem to have the same yearning and that’s what makes Jeff, Who Lives at Home better than the sum of its parts.