In 2006, the directing duo composed of brothers Jay and Mark Duplass made something fantastic with meager resources. Their independent drama The Puffy Chair is one of my all-time favorite road trip movies and, from what I've seen so far, it's the apex of the so-called mumblecore movement. It's realistic without ever drifting into monotony or making you feel like you're just pointlessly spying on your neighbor's daily life. Two years ago, the Duplass brothers got the opportunity to do a more "mainstream" independent film - that was Cyrus (see my review here), a mostly effective drama, which wasn't nearly as vibrant or emotionally resonant as The Puffy Chair, but it had enough moments that made it worth a recommendation. The Duplass brothers' most recent effort, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is an 84-minute affair that, for 70 minutes or so, feels like it's headed in the same direction as Cyrus: a decent drama, with occasional chuckles for good measure, despite not being nearly as insightful or as heart-wrenching as The Puffy Chair. Unfortunately, Jeff, Who Lives at Home's final moments drift into horrendously saccharine territory, and to make matters worse, the way it all unfolds gives one the impression that the filmmakers didn't feel confident enough in their protagonist's flaws and virtues, and instead, felt that they had to do something really over-the-top in order to give a sense of closure and redemption to the proceedings. Watching this film, I felt like I was moderately enjoying myself and that the enjoyment was suddenly interrupted by something completely random and out-of-the-blue that was conveniently forced upon me.
Like me, Jeff (Jason Segel) is a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (so much that he can even quickly recite the cast of all the actors who starred in the film). Unlike me, though, the movie's philosophy seems to have consumed him so much that he seems to believe that everything really does happen for a reason. He receives a call from someone who has obviously dialed the wrong number and is asking for a "Kevin," but Jeff doesn't know anyone by that name. However, he becomes convinced that the name must mean something, so anytime he comes across a sign with that name or even someone with that name, he feels compelled to see where it might lead him. Since this is the type of thing that the 30-year-old Jeff is concerned with, it looks like he hasn't had time to sit and think about the practical stuff: he spends hours upon hours in the basement and has no clue where his life is headed. His mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), just wants him to do something as simple as a house chore, but even that seems like too much. Meanwhile, Jeff's brother Pat (Ed Helms) is having problems with his marriage to Linda (Judy Greer) - their relationship seems to have lost the spark it apparently had once, and their priorities seem to be completely out of sync with one another.
The film consists mostly of situations that are by turns serious and by turns wacky involving brothers Jeff and Pat going from one place to another, discovering things about each other and about their dysfunctional relationship, as Pat also makes discoveries about what Linda does during the day. Needless to say, a lot of the discoveries don't turn out to be particularly good news for all involved. For the most part, I enjoyed the rapport between Jeff and Pat - there's plenty of honesty here, and while I doubt anyone will bust a gut, one could argue that at least there's comedy of the smile-inducing variety. While all that is happening, there's something entirely separate going on with the two guys' mother, Sharon, who is at her workplace and starts receiving instant messages from a "secret admirer." Unrelated as this plot thread may be, I appreciated how well it captured the situation of someone who's at a point in her life where she no longer feels "wanted" by anyone, yet she suddenly encounters something that makes her eyes light up - Sarandon handles it beautifully and with a lot of grace, and even when the identity of the "secret admirer" becomes totally obvious, I didn't mind. And I expect a lot of people to object to the scene involving the sprinklers, but I found it to be among the movie's nicest and most affecting moments.
In the technical department, things aren't handled quite as effectively. The Duplass brothers continue to employ the technique of frequent zoom-ins and zoom-outs at particular moments (i.e. the camera will be focused on a character and when he/she suddenly says something that the film apparently wishes to accentuate, the camera makes a rapid, haphazard zoom-in on the character), but in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the use of the technique feels more in-your-face and aggressive. I understand the fact that the directing duo has a desire to move towards more conventional fare while still providing some of their signature style, but it comes across as much more off-putting here than it did in their prior cinematic efforts. In addition to that, the score often feels way too cute for my taste.
Aside from Ed Helms, I have nothing but positive comments in the performance department. I had predicted, based on the movie's title and trailer, that this film would simply ask Jason Segel to play a serious version of the slacker he's played so well in several comedies. That wouldn't have bothered me, but it wouldn't exactly have been boundary-pushing either. The surprising thing is, though, that Jeff, Who Lives at Home isn't so interested in focusing on Jeff's indolent lifestyle as it is in analyzing his frequently paranoid and fidgety personality. Some of Jeff's comments and responses to people's questions demonstrate not so much that Jeff still has the mind of a 15-year-old, but rather, that he's a 30-year-old who understands that certain things in life are complicated, yet he can't really assimilate them too well because he hasn't experienced them personally. Jason Segel does a remarkable job at conveying all of this and proves, as I was already expecting, that he's well-suited to step out of his comfort zone and give solid dramatic performances. As I already said, Susan Sarandon is very good, which didn't come as a surprise either. But the best performance in the film comes courtesy of Judy Greer (who I really wish had been in even more scenes), as she perfectly captures the frustration of wanting a relationship to work while fighting against the reality that the heat and passion have simply eroded. I smiled when the spunky-cute Katie Aselton (Mark Duplass' wife) showed up for a cameo as a restaurant hostess. As for Helms, I have no idea if I've simply got some form of prior prejudice developed against him, but I find him neither funny nor dramatically convincing. It may be that I'm still recovering from the painfully unfunny experience that was last year's Cedar Rapids. His work just feels too strained for me.
Without spoiling anything, what I'll say here is that the climactic sequence of Jeff, Who Lives at Home initially seemed like it was headed in a great direction. It seemed intent on bringing all the characters together and have all of them, in the small world they inhabit as a group of people, make an attempt to resolve their situations and come together as a unit. Unfortunately, the film makes a decision to have an event that's completely unrelated to the proceedings suddenly enter the plot and take precedence over the denouement. What bothers me the most is that this seems like an attempt to amp up the emotional stakes, because the filmmakers apparently didn't feel confident enough that what we had already seen and heard of Jeff's journey would be sufficient for us to think he was ready to achieve redemption and for us to get a sense of closure. It's all made tragically worse by the fact that the situation Jeff is suddenly placed into is as cliche as they come (something you've seen in a dozen movies before, and with two little girls and their daddy, for good measure), and by the fact that, once the situation concludes, it's followed by one of those syrupy montages that is so frequently employed to say "Ta-da! Everything is resolved, guys!". This particular montage is used here as a substitute for the conversations that we needed to hear between a few of these characters in order to get a true sense of closure. I do appreciate the minimalism involved in the film's very last moment, but still can't get over the sugar crash I got from the scenes that immediately preceded it. Jeff, Who Lives at Home has its heart in the right place, but its decision at the end of inserting an extrinsic situation to up the emotional stakes denotes a lack of confidence in all of the prior material that the film had to offer, and the subsequent montage denotes sheer laziness. (P.S. I would've loved to follow those two characters to New Orleans.)