Underdeveloped story line ﬁtting for man-child dramedy
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Mar. 16, 2012
Along with "21 Jump Street," the semi-serious comedy "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" centers around adult men who have stalled in some form of arrested adolescence. But unlike its brasher, bigger-budgeted brother, this discursive day-in-some-lives dials back the aggressive humor to give audiences a more contemplative - if ultimately slight - experience.
Written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass ("The Puffy Chair," "Baghead"), "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" hews to the filmmakers' spontaneous, low-fi aesthetic, even as they take their game up a notch with such name actors as Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon. Like their last film, "Cyrus," it's the modest, mumblecore version of the seemingly perennial story of man-children in the promised land.
That Eden of deferred dreams in this case is Baton Rouge, La., which presents an appropriately featureless backdrop for the Duplass's superficially banal story.
Jeff (Segel), who at 30 is still living with his mother and doing little more than bong hits for a living, receives a phone call from his mom (Sarandon) asking him to go to Home Depot to get some wood glue to repair a kitchen shutter.
That simple task sends Jeff - who's obsessed with the M. Night Shyamalan movie "Signs" and sees the world as a theater of random events leading to "some perfect moment" - on an errand that will result in all sorts of detours and digressions. A bus ride ends up in a basketball game; a chance meeting with his brother Pat (Ed Helms) ends up in a graveyard and a Hampton Inn - in Jeff's spaced-out mind, it's all connected, leading somehow to the meaning and purpose that has so far eluded him.
If Segel's character has a spiritual heir, it's Jeff Bridges's character in "The Big Lebowski," although the search for a living room rug in that movie had more narrative drive than Jeff's desultory picaresque.
Filmed in huge, screen-filling close-ups and punctuated by quick, darting zoom shots, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" begins to convey a smothering sense of claustrophobia that's altogether fitting for the film's themes of stuck-ness, but results in an eye-straining wearyness for viewers. The visual inelegance is set off by the cast's gratifyingly quiet, low-key performances: Helms, cast against type as an abrasive, patronizing poser, rises nicely to the occasion, and Segel brings a shambling, baggy hugeness to the role of an overgrown, psychically thwarted baby. (He's too big for everything, even the screen itself.)
"Jeff, Who Lives at Home" centers mostly on the brothers' tense, mutually wary relationship, but its emotional ballast comes from Sarandon, who invests her character with pathos and sympathy as she embarks on her own mysterious journey throughout the day. Thanks to Sarandon's pitch-perfect turn, that journey turns out to possess the highest of stakes from the very first moment.
Seen through one lens, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" can be interpreted as an aimless, easygoing wish fulfillment fantasy for underachievers everywhere; seen through another, it's a numb, naturalistic group portrait of unresolved grief. Either way, with its shambling, felicitously contrived structure and Fellini-esque climax, it's some kind of Jungian slacker fable.
The Dude abides, even in the veneer-paneled confines of a mom's basement.