Silver Screen: Jeff, Who Lives at Home ***1/2
Jeff, Who Lives at Home, a comedy as shaggy and likable as its protagonist, is a little movie about big ideas. Cowriters and directors the Duplass brothers have made a string of small, character-driven comedies (Cyrus, Humpday, The Puffy Chair), and this one retains the same intimacy of scale while attempting to address cosmic issues of fate and destiny. It works, mostly, and even when it doesn't the sharp ensemble cast is able to add layers of depth to the smallest of personal interactions. Think of it as micro-profundity.
A paunchier-than-usual Jason Segel plays the title character, who does indeed live at home with his working single mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon). Jeff whiles away his days smoking pot and sitting on the couch, vaguely aware of his own status as the ultimate loser cliché . But Jeff is also charmingly undaunted by his mostly self-imposed circumstances.
Jeff is obsessed with the concept of destiny, as he details in the movie's opening monologue, during which he obsesses over the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs. He's convinced the universe is sending him his own set of signs when an early morning phone call, a wrong number for someone named Kevin, leads him on a journey out of the house. Rather than take the bus to the hardware store to get some wood glue as per his mother's request, he begins following Kevins-- first a kid with the name on his basketball jersey, then an industrial food truck with the name written on the side.
The unexpected trip reunites Jeff with his semi-estranged brother Pat (Ed Helms), a selfish blowhard whose indulgent midlife crisis has distanced him from his wife Linda (the always-welcome Judy Greer). After a disastrous joyride in Pat's new Porsche, the mismatched brothers catch Linda out on a lunch date with a mystery schlub (Duplass regular Steve Zissis), and Jeff vows to help Pat solve his marital crisis.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a quest movie. It has the story structure of an Arthurian legend, but shoehorned into the tight confines of a single day in an otherwise unremarkable life. Meanwhile, beleaguered but strong-willed mother Sharon is having her own mini-adventure as she enlists the help of a friend (Rae Dawn Chong) to uncover the identity of the secret admirer sending her love notes at the office. It's a subplot that seems only barely thematically related to the rest of the picture until the final moments, when the plot threads converge.
Your feelings about the notion of destiny itself may dictate how you feel about the movie's ending, which could be construed as either thematically ambitious or unearned transcendence. Certainly the final act raises the stakes for Jeff while arguably also validating his slacker lifestyle. The Duplass boys handle it well, though. One of their hallmarks is the ability to make tonally dissonant sequences come together with an odd fluidity. The not-so-erotic homoerotic comedy Humpday seesawed between awkward humor and just plain awkwardness to great effect, although the best example is the divisive (and I say awesome) Baghead, which manages to be an indie comedy, a genuinely scary horror movie, and a wry critique of aspiring filmmakers all in one.
Segel is wonderful here, the perfect counterpart to the prickly Pat. Helms, who can also be almost impossibly likeable (see Cedar Rapids), is far thornier here. On paper Jeff may be the loser, but Pat is clearly more of a failure as a human being. The actors don't overplay the schism, though, and find sympathy for both characters, while Sarandon's Sharon is the movie's real unsung hero. Jeff, Who Lives at Home isn't the Duplass brothers’ most audacious movie, but it may well be their most satisfying effort so far.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.