Monday, March 19, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Droll search for the meaning of life

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.23.12

I love pleasant surprises.

Ed Helms has a knack for finding indie dramedies with just the right blend of charm and offbeat quirkiness. He scored last year at about this time, with just such a project: the completely adorable Cedar Rapids. Despite its lower profile and far smaller box-office take, it was far more satisfying than his obligatory return to gross-out form a few months later, in The Hangover, Part II.

Pat (Ed Helms) is arrogant enough to assume that he can get away with parking
in a spot reserved for disabled drivers, and is ready to blame the universe when he
gets caught doing it. His brother, Jeff (Jason Segel), a believer in karma and
celestial balance, views this outcome as just desserts ... but is far too polite to
say as much. These differing views of life, the universe and everything will
prove important as these brothers navigate what turns into a most unusual day.
Folks who enjoyed Cedar Rapids will find the same delights in Jeff, Who Lives at Home ... and it isn’t even Helms’ film. Granted, he has a crucial co-starring role, but this whimsically bent effort from the writing/directing team of Jay and Mark Duplass belongs mostly to star Jason Segel.

Although ... no ... that’s not entirely correct. Helms plays an equally important role, as does co-star Susan Sarandon. And Judy Greer. And Rae Dawn Chong.

That’s the secret behind indie hits like this one: The filmmakers pay equal attention to each of the ensemble’s well-crafted characters.

Thirtysomething Jeff (Segel), the eponymous character, has stalled out on the highway of life. To the enduring frustration of his mother, Sharon (Sarandon), he leads an isolated existence in her basement: trapped not by circumstance but more by choice. He’s not agoraphobic — such as the character played by Nicolas Cage in 2003’s Matchstick Men, who feared leaving his house — but merely overwhelmed.

Obsessed by a search for “meaning” in all of life’s events, even the least significant, Jeff is frozen into near-immobility by indecision. The 2002 film Signs has become his personal Bible — beleaguered real-world filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan probably welcomes this unexpected endorsement — and Jeff watches it repeatedly, struck anew each time by how the narrative wraps minutia and trivia into a Highly Significant Outcome.

Watching the film while stoned — Jeff’s state of choice — probably adds to its portent, but he’d regard even this as a lifestyle choice affecting a “big picture” that he’s never able to bring into focus.

Jeff’s brother, alternatively, seems to have adhered to the traditional American career and lifestyle path: Pat (Helms) has a stable job and is married to Linda (Greer). But their relationship is rocky at best, their once-mutual affection now smothered by Pat’s self-centered arrogance, condescension and hair-trigger temper. He is, in short, a jerk ... and a rather unpleasant one, at that. Jeff may be “useless” in the conventional sense, but at least he’s a nice guy.

Quite sweet, actually, and that’s crucial to Segel’s performance. He has a knack for projecting good-hearted gentleness from characters with glaring flaws, which makes him a far better choice for this film than, say, Owen Wilson, who often plays a similar sort of role but invariably comes off looking and sounding insufferably pompous.

We can’t help adoring Segel’s Jeff, despite his obvious shortcomings; he’s like a lost little lamb in a grizzly bear’s body.

Besides, we gradually sense that something lies at the heart of Jeff’s fixation: some trigger that has driven him to this state of near-paralysis. The same something, we soon discover, also contributes to Pat’s hostility toward life, the universe and everything.

All these characters will experience a beguiling epiphany during what seems an ordinary day, when Sharon calls Jeff and demands — under threat of being thrown out of the house — that he get off his duff, ride the bus downtown, and buy some wood glue so that he can fix a kitchen cabinet door. Stung into at least a semblance of action, Jeff attempts to do just that.

But his day actually began a bit earlier, with a wrong-number caller wanting to reach somebody named Kevin, who got mad at Jeff for not being that person. Now obsessed with a search for meaning that somehow involves the name Kevin, Jeff’s trip downtown becomes Homeric in its collection of assorted escapades. Along the way, he “coincidentally” stumbles across Pat, frantic over the fact that Linda may have left him, and indeed may already be having an affair.

Elsewhere, from the comfort of the cubicle she inhabits in some sort of office setting, Sharon is being gently stalked by a “secret admirer” who wafts paper airplanes and sends friendly, flirty messages via inter-office e-mail. At a point in her life where the thought of intimate companionship has become a distant memory, Sharon frets that somebody is setting her up for a cruel practical joke.

(Let me just note, in passing, that Sarandon remains the hottest 65-year-old on the planet; it’s droll to imagine that such a woman wouldn’t have a pack of guys nipping at her heels ... many of whom probably would be 30 years her junior.)

Sharon shares this concern with Carol (Chong), an office mate who clearly has listened attentively to many of this woman’s tales of woe, particularly those involving Jeff.

The Duplass brothers sketch all these characters through behavior and circumstance, gradually building fully fleshed individuals who — despite this film’s just slightly bent view of our world — win our hearts and minds. It becomes impossible to ignore Jeff’s belief that everything happens for a reason; he’s so darn sincere about it. We start to wonder about our own paths not taken; in some ways, this film is an amusing, real-world cousin of 1998’s Sliding Doors.

The revelatory moment comes when Pat, finally beaten down by his own shortcomings, admits that life would be much easier, and more satisfying, if Jeff were right: if there were meaning behind seemingly irrelevant decisions. But that way lies madness, of course, because then we’d worry over every one of an average day’s myriad choices.

How can you know what to do?

“You have to go with your gut,” Jeff replies, and of course that’s what we all do.

Segel anchors this film with his earnest, baby-faced sincerity. Even as we sympathize with his mother’s exasperation, it’s impossible to fully criticize Jeff. He’s stuck, somehow, and the film dangles two mysteries: What prompted this inertia, and how might it be overcome?

Sarandon, as ever, is fascinating to watch; she imbues Sharon with beguiling complexity and deeply layered emotions, often conveyed with precisely timed sideways glances and twitches of her lips. Sarandon is an undersung master of the less-is-more approach to acting; she can build more personality with silence and a thoughtful gesture, than most other actors can manage with pages of dialogue.

At the same time, Sarandon’s line readings are never shy of perfect; she wrings every ounce of implication from even mundane dialogue.

Helms has the toughest character arc: We loathe Pat at first blush, particularly for the way he browbeats his wife. This guy has nowhere near the cuddly underbelly that made Helms’ performance in Cedar Rapids so charming; Pat has turned verbal abuse into an art form. And yet — and this is crucial — we eventually recognize that he’s just as stuck as his stoner brother: trapped by expectation and circumstance into a mode of behavior that clearly isn’t working.

Greer, delivering another persuasive variation of the “wronged wife” she handled so well in The Descendants, once again makes the most of minimal screen time. It’s hard not to wince when Linda flinches at her husband’s verbal assaults; Greer makes her character’s helpless, hopeless pain feel real.

I wish Jay and Mark Duplass paid as much attention to narrative detail, as they do to character construction. For a guy with what seems an average lower-middle-class job, Pat throws money around like a Beverly Hills millionaire; that’s an irritating detail in this story, as is the apparent absence of consequences regarding Pat’s reckless driving. In their efforts to be whimsical, the Duplass brothers clumsily disregard essential plot logic.

So no, this film isn’t perfect. Some scenes and narrative hiccups try too hard, leaving us to wish for more of the graceful subtlety Sarandon delivers in all of her scenes. But everything builds to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, and the film’s gentle tone also is nicely complemented by Michael Andrews’ droll score. As I’ve said many times before, indie charmers can be a delicious treat, because they arrive in stealth mode, unencumbered by the full-bore publicity assault of their big-studio, mega-budget cousins.

Jeff is a quiet pleasure that also demonstrates perceptive insight into human nature ... even as it revolves around characters we’d never, ever want living next door.

1 comment:

  1. This could have had so much more potential to be better than it already was but it had lazy writing. Everything was one big coincidence and the end was way too heavy and cheesy to make this somewhat slacker comedy reach out. Good review though Derrick. It had its moments and a good cast but it bothered me a little too much.