Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Directed by Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Screenplay by Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong, Susan Sarandon
How long is Jeff, Who Lives at Home? 83 minutes.
What is Jeff, Who Lives at Home rated? R for language including sexual references and some drug use.
Decent Performances Cannot Entirely Overcome
An Underfed Script
After succeeding at being a TV star, movie star, screenwriter, and songwriter (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek), it was about time for Jason Segel to try to his hand at the mass-friendly-ish independent dramedy. And The Muppets star is easily the best thing about Jeff, Who Lives At Home, the latest film from the fraternal Cyrus writer/director team Jay and Mark Duplass.
As the eponymous Jeff, Segel plays a 30-year-old stoner who still resides in his mother’s basement. Obsessed with destiny, Jeff finds value in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and seeks out signs in his own life about what his overall purpose is as much as what to do for the rest of the day. What makes Jeff intriguing is that he’s not a happy character. While you’d expect a character like him to be whimsical, pleasant, or goofy, Jeff isn’t. He’s not charming, lovable, or even physically appealing, and Segel imbues him with a genuine sadness and desperation that makes him fascinating. The best parts of the movie actually occur at the beginning, before he encounters his brother Pat (Ed Helms). When Jeff is alone at his mother’s house or wandering the streets on a quixotic quest to find meaning from a wrong number, the character shows a real introspective quality that loses its power when he’s forced into a more conventional plot.
After being mugged, Jeff coincidentally runs into Pat, and they seek to solve the mystery of whom Pat’s wife Linda (a-better-than-the-role-deserves Judy Greer) is having lunch, and possibly an affair with. After the two begin their investigation, the movie loses its edge. Jeff’s existential crisis is put on the back burner while Pat’s not nearly as involving marital strife takes center stage. Although Jeff’s doubts and ponderings continue to pop up, the film misuses him when he turns into Pat’s guide. Regardless, Helms and Segel share a nice chemistry, even if they seem more like ex-friends than brothers who try to stay out of each other’s lives.
Helms is mostly decent as Pat, even if he can’t find the right balance between jerk and well-meaning tool. As much as people deride Jeff for being directionless, Pat comes across as the worse human being. From his first scene where he reveals to his wife that he bought a Porsche to the fight he has with Linda in a hotel room, it’s difficult to find the “good” in him. There’s an oblivious smugness to Pat that makes it hard to believe that any revelation, whether about his life, wife, or brother, will stick for too long.
Part of the problem is that the movie comes across as very underdeveloped. With a paltry 83 minute running time that spans probably less than 12 hours in film time, Jeff doesn’t delve as deeply as it could or should into the issues that plague these characters. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to shake the sense that this film exists mostly on the surface, as though the Duplass Brothers came up with ideas but never bothered to truly expand on them in a way to give their movie or their characters necessary depth. The film moves along well enough, but precious few moments give it that needed oomph to make it rise, even ever so slightly, above other films of its ilk.
All of these elements combined give Jeff the sense of a missing identity. If it felt intentional, this aspect could work particularly well considering the main character. Instead, the film suffers from a lack of willingness to truly tackle the intricacies of the characters, which is harmful for a film that skews a lot more towards the dram side of dramedy. The under-realized complexities of Jeff, Pat, and Linda warrants ambiguity. Jeff’s line to a cab driver near the end is a great example of what seems to be the film’s overriding and most honest philosophy. Yet the movie’s pro-destiny outlook and happy ending takes away from the sad uncertainty that naturally emerged from who these individuals are and where they have been.
Additionally, while this is going on Jeff possesses a B-plot featuring Jeff and Pat’s widowed mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) encountering a secret admirer at work. It feels wrong to accuse an 83-minute movie of having filler, but the entire storyline felt pointless. While there might be some thematic connection to the Jeff/Pat plot, since there certainly wasn’t a narrative one, Sharon’s tale offered nothing new or deeper to the film. Every time the movie cut away to Sharon’s well-trod journey of a middle-aged woman wanting to feel wanted, I felt as though this was added primarily because the filmmakers realized they couldn’t release a 70-minute movie. For all of Jeff and Pat’s lack of potential, I kept waiting for Jeff to return to them because at least I felt invested in their story. Maybe without falling back on Sharon, the filmmakers could have given some more weight to the two brothers.
The Duplasses, whose previous film was 2010′s Cyrus, have developed a niche in slice-of-life, down-to-Earth, shaky cam dramedies. Jeff is overall a weaker film than Cyrus, but its flaws, such as the short running time and un/underdeveloped characters, makes you wonder how they’d fare with a television property on FX, AMC, HBO, etc. Characters like Jeff, John (John C. Reilly in Cyrus), and Cyrus (Jonah Hill in Cyrus) have rich inner lives that might make a Duplass protagonist better suited for the long-term development and investment required of a series instead of rushing them through a standardized plot.