The Duplass Brothers have somehow managed the nearly impossible trick of moving from the no-budget indie world of their first feature, “The Puffy Chair,” to making movies with well-known movie stars without having to trade any of their independence and without subverting their voice at all. Their new film, “Jeff, Who Lives At Home,” is the most accessible thing they’ve made, and it’s also a bit of a marvel, a film without a single hint of cynicism in it.
Jeff is played by Jason Segel, and he’s a 30 year old still living with his mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon). His older brother Pat (Ed Helms) is married to Linda (Judy Greer), and they’re struggling with some pretty fundamental communication issues. They all live in Baton Rouge, and the easy version of this film would treat Jeff and his decidedly arrested adulthood as the source of the joke. Instead, the opening scene sets the stage for everything that follows, as Jeff dictates a long monologue into a recorder about the importance of the movie “Signs” in his life. He explains how the structure of the film and the way it eventually draws all of its story threads together changed the way he views the world, and now he’s open to the voice of the universe, no matter how mysterious its method of communication.
Sounds like they’re setting him up as an idiot, right? Only that’s not what the Duplass brothers have in mind, and Jason Segel never plays Jeff as a dumb guy or as a loser. He’s just… waiting. He’s sure that there’s something he’s meant to do or experience, and he leaves himself wide open, absolutely ready for anything, no matter how odd, to steer his course. Over the course of one long day that starts with a simple instruction from his mother to go to the hardware store and buy some wood glue to repair a pantry door in the kitchen, Jeff’s belief system is put to the test, and he’s not alone in the journey he takes. His random course ends up bringing him into the orbit of both his mother and his brother in some unexpected ways, even as they’re starting to follow their own signs.
No matter how I describe it in vague terms, it doesn’t do justice to the lovely way things pay off in scene after scene, or to the tone of the film, which walks a fine line between funny and genuine, and like I said… this is not a cynical film. This is a movie about the way connections in our lives really do manifest in strange and sometimes wonderful ways, and it is one of the few movies here that offered up a touch of the divine without ever tipping into the fantastic. Segel has played a number of sad sacks in the films he’s made in the past, but Jeff is a variation I can’t recall seeing before, a guy whose faith seems crazy, but keeps paying off. He is sweet and sincere, and there’s no malice or artifice to the character. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He’s just looking for a purpose in life, and his mother Sharon makes excuses for him, usually revolving around the early death of his father. Pat was already almost an adult by that point, but it’s obvious that his own development was stunted in some way because he’s childish in the way he relates to his wife. Helms isn’t playing Pat for laughs, and there are plenty of places where the film just hurts. It’s some of his nicest, most nuanced work yet. I praised Judy Greer’s work in “The Descendants,” and here again, she is piercing and emotional and quite lovely. The nicest surprise in the film is the subplot involving Sharon and her co-worker Carol, played by Rae Dawn Chong. I haven’t seen her in a while, and she and Sarandon have their own little mini-movie cooking along here that eventually runs smack dab into the movie about Jeff and Pat, and the way everything comes together is going to make Shyamalan curse because not only do the Duplass brothers name-check him, they easily best him. This feels earned in a way his movie never did, and casual in a way that his movie couldn’t.
It’s a short film, just under 90 minutes, and it never overplays a scene, never tries to milk a joke. Technically, it’s the sharpest thing they’ve ever done, and I hope Paramount doesn’t treat this like a “little” movie, no matter what the budget. “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” is moving, and I think it will reward repeat visits because of the world they’ve created and the faith they have in these people. The biggest difference between this and their previous film “Cyrus” is that I want to meet Jeff. I want to spend time with him. By the end of the film, all of these people are people I’d want to know. I’d get restraining orders against most of the people in “Cyrus.” It makes all the difference. This one is easy to love. Jay and Mark Duplass are building a very special filmography, and as long as they’re protected and allowed to follow their own signs to whatever destiny has in mind, I have a feeling it’s going to be a pleasure to watch them work.
“Jeff, Who Lives At Home” arrives in theaters March 2, 2012.