Movie review by Greg Carlson
In the opening scene of Jay and Mark Duplass’ “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” title manchild Jason Segel humorously expounds on his dedication to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs.” In breathless wonderment, Jeff outlines into his handheld recorder a philosophy dependent on barely-there synchronicities and a universe where even the most farfetched coincidences could be the markers of profound portent. Given the history of the filmmakers, the viewer cannot be sure whether and to what extent Jeff is sympathetic and meant to be taken seriously. Is he an ambitionless pothead whose embrace of a ridiculous Mel Gibson film suggests to sophisticates that he is not deserving of respect? That the monologue is delivered on the toilet initially points to yes, but the rest of the movie appears to argue on behalf of Jeff as a decent, worthy person.
Jeff’s easygoing lifestyle is mirrored by the movie’s uncomplicated plot, in which Jeff and his insensitive brother Pat (Ed Helms) reconnect while conducting an incompetent surveillance job on Pat’s frustrated and possibly adulterous wife Linda (Judy Greer). Meanwhile, Jeff’s mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) attempts to figure out the identity of the entirely too obvious secret admirer at the office where she works. The character-driven orientation favored by the filmmakers allows the accomplished cast to riff on the subtleties and tics of personality that are needed to fill in the gaps between the slapstick shenanigans that echo so many dozens of TV sitcom scripts.
Tagged as practitioners of the so-called mumblecore aesthetic of do-it-yourself moviemaking and the low stakes, irony-dependent “white people problems” that almost inevitable accompany the plotlines of said films, the Duplass brothers began the transition away from outsider status with “Cyrus” in 2010. “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is less engaging and accomplished than “Cyrus,” even though both movies share the premise of lead adult characters who still live with their mothers. As usual, the women in the movie carry the burden of responsibility while the males embody lavish quixotic pursuits of delusional fancy – minus the chivalry. Pat’s ill-conceived purchase of a Porsche becomes an operational symbol of his self-centeredness and his inability to listen to Linda.
The Duplass’ jittery photography embraces the unmotivated zoom in what feels like deliberate defiance of technical sophistication, and the distraction, as Andrew Schenker adroitly noted, “gets more tired with each film.” The movie’s episodic structure suggests a series of short films, some better than others. The section in which Jeff gets mugged following a pickup basketball game won’t do much to help the negative perception of mumblecore’s attitudes regarding race, but the sequence unfolds like a Raymond Carver short story and is significantly more interesting than the foolish chapter in which Jeff eavesdrops on Linda at a bistro.
There is little doubt that the climax of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” resorts to the feel-good banalities that tidily conclude so many mainstream Hollywood comedies, and the movie’s journey is significantly better than its ultimate, huggy destination. The contrivances surrounding the culmination of Jeff’s quest to discern the cosmic purpose of his “Signs”-inspired ideology take place during a traffic jam that is too shapeless to align with either Hal Needham’s “The Cannonball Run” or Jen-Luc Godard’s “Week End.” All the characters conveniently end up in the same place at the same time, and make validating, split-second decisions guaranteed to divide audience goodwill.