Review: “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”

Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens with an earnest monologue by Jeff (Jason Segel) as he expounds into a personal recording device his theory on how all things are connected, a theory he came to in multiple rewatchings of Signs. The universe, Jeff says, is simply a series of connections that most people don’t see. If one were to follow those connections, however, they would discover perfect moments, where all the forces of the universe combine.

If that sounds like a philosophy worth rolling your eyes at you’re not alone. Jeff is a loser, a 30 year old burnout who lives in his mother’s basement and smokes weed and watches TV and basically does little but think about these things at length. Everyone else dismisses him pretty regularly, including his mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) and his brother Pat (Ed Helms). That is, until one morning he decides the TV is speaking directly to him when the infomercial says picking up the phone will change his life. The next call, a wrong number asking for Kevin, gets Jeff out of the house and looking for who this mysterious Kevin might be.

Pat, on the other hand, is stuck in a mid-life crisis. He’s some sort of middle management, forgettable and disposable. His long-suffering wife Linda (Judy Greer) listens over breakfast as he tries to convince her that the best thing for their lives right now isn’t a house, but a Porsche. He doesn’t win that argument, which is a shame considering he already has the Porsche bought and sitting in the driveway, ready to have Linda’s breakfast dumped on it in protest.

At the same time there’s Sharon, who is stuck at work trying to direct Jeff to go to the store and get wood glue to fix a broken blind on a window. This rapidly involves getting Pat involved, and only being distracted by the sudden appearance of a paper airplane that lands in her cubicle and a secret admirer that pops up on IM professing admiration for her. Her day, otherwise uneventful, becomes a small game of sleuthing to find out who could possibly be interested in her.

If this all sounds a little precious, I perfectly understand. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the latest film by the Duplass Brothers, directors of awkward indie comedies like Cyrus and Baghead. But unlike Cyrus, at least, Jeff is a movie much more comfortable in its small, quirky skin; a movie that on paper seems too convoluted to be anything other than contrived bullshit, but which actually works on film to create a tiny, intimate film.

The story quickly brings Jeff and Pat together, two brothers who barely understand each other. Jeff is utterly lost in his search for meaning, and Pat is instantly derisive of anyone the minute they try to get real, unable to engage on any level other than half-joking douchery. But they quickly end up on a fractured adventure when they discover Pat’s wife Linda out with another man. Is she cheating on him, like Pat insists? Jeff is drafted to investigate, a journey that brings him through a whole array of coincidences that only help to expound upon his theories about the nature of things. At the same time, both brothers struggle with their own broken relationship, trouble that arose when their father died when they were both fairly young.

These types of movies show up every few years, always in the form of indie comedies, the kind of meandering reminder that what we all need in life is to stop and try to remember the human connections and harmonies that appear all around us if we try to look for them. It’s a delicate type of film, with a tendency to drive straight up its own ass (I ❤ Huckabees is a good example of one that gets lost in its own premise), but Jeff manages to avoid the worst of it through careful navigation of the lives of its characters, and the nuanced performances by actors doing some of their best work in keeping it all relatable.

Of the three story lines at work here, I feel the one with Susan Sarandon is by far the best, good enough to be the reason to go seek out this movie. Her small, sometimes sad sometimes funny romantic adventure is incredibly narrow in scale and focus, but it manages to contain within it all the worries of middle-age, the regrets and the wishes (fulfilled or not) to try to reclaim some of the verve for life that one sets aside in the daily demands of work or kids. It’s a really delicate bit of storytelling, and giving away how she unravels her mystery would be genuinely criminal, but I cannot say enough good things about it. It’s the kind of interpersonal relationship you never see depicted in movies.

If there’s one problem with Jeff it’s simply that it’s a little too up front about it’s sensibilities. The themes are expressed one too many times, with an ending that feels deserved but still a little on the nose. The same is true of the handheld, home video styling of the camera work, which often decides to punctuate quiet moments through pans and zooms that help reinforce the beats in a way that isn’t overtly intrusive but becomes a bit bothersome. This is a movie whose pleasure rests in hanging out with interesting characters, in feeling their emotions, and the explicitness of meaning sometimes gets in the way of that.

But if we’re being honest, I feel like a total jerk for knocking a movie for being earnest. And Jeff, Who Lives at Home is absolutely an earnest film. Its trappings are in the offbeat comedies that litter indie cinema, but it has the meat to back it up, a wealth of emotional content that turns all the minor quibbles and quirks into something far greater than the sum of its parts. What looks to be winking artiface is, in fact, something much warmer and more human. As far as this type of movie goes, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is better than it has any right to be, and well worth seeking out.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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3 Responses to Review: “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”

  1. Re: the camera work, the Duplass Brothers spoke about this style at the Austin Film Festival after the screening of JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME. The quick zooms and quasi-documentary-style feel allowed them to capture more honest, in-the-moment performances, rather than having to do multiple takes at different angles and distances — something that often creates artificial scene-work. Viewed with that lens, so to speak, it almost makes the film feel more intimate, like we’re listening in on these people’s stories rather than having them orchestrated and presented to us as fiction. It’s different, and perhaps a little disconcerting at first, but I think it worked well for the material.

    • Oh, I understand WHY it’s done, that’s the (probably valid) justification of any filmmaker who picks up a handheld to shoot anything that isn’t action (in that case it’s usually ‘herp derp Bourne did it!’). I get it. I do.

      Doesn’t mean I have to like it, or not point out when it’s also jarring.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    It’s a pretty thin concept for a feature, with some potent one-liners and sight gags that are more sporadic than consistent. The cast is pretty good and tries their best but what I was mostly surprised by was how unfunny Segel and Helms were together, and they were improvising half of the time too! Nice review Matthew. Check out my review when you get the chance.

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