To paraphrase the great Dina Washington, what a difference a day makes in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the second studio film from mumblecore merchants-turned burgeoning Hollywood players, the Duplass brothers.
Opening with a very funny scene, eponymous hero (played with an innocent naivety by Jason Segel) is sat in contemplative solitude using an old Dictaphone to ponder the themes of fate and destiny found in the film Signs. An aimless pothead who appears to be mainly relegated to the basement sofa (bong firmly affixed to hand), Jeff receives a phone call from someone demanding to speak to a ‘Kevin’ which leads him to believe this seemingly arbitrary moment is what he’s been waiting for.
Sent on a simple DIY errand by his exasperated, office worker mother (Susan Sarandon), a series of interconnecting events leads Jeff to older brother Pat (Ed Helms). With his already fragile marriage, further exacerbated by the purchase of a Porsche in a thoughtless retort to his mid-life crisis, Jeff is the last person Pat is interested in sharing time with. Nevertheless, their meeting leads to further revelations as Jeff’s slacker sixth sense may be more than just a wishy-washy stoner theory.
Like their first A-list feature (2011′s Cyrus) Jay and Mark Duplass have taken what they’ve learned about finding an intimacy and emotional truth to their characters through a loose shooting style, and applied it once again to a slightly larger canvas. This is another well-acted, partially improvised comedy drama, but while Jonah Hill’s uncomfortable closeness towards mum Marisa Tomei in Cyrus gave that film a darker and sometimes uncomfortable quality, ‘Jeff’ is a gentler, more whimsical piece of work.
The film actually ambles along in a quirky manner which may test some viewers, but just when you think you’re watching a sweet, if slight, eccentric lo-fi comedy, the brothers pull off a scene that would instantly feel contrived in a bigger Hollywood feature but here, just knocks you for six. It’s utterly charming and magical and helps set up a dénouement which brings everything beautifully together, again managing to avoid the usual, icky clichés associated with film which tackle a similar subject matter.
The brother’s baggy camera work (warning – there’s more crash zooms in here than the entire back catalogue of 24) really frees up their performers, bringing out the very best in them. If Segel’s past cinematic track record sometimes strays dangerously close to relying on that laid-back schlub persona (which admittedly, he does really well) Jeff’s sudden shift from inertia to a mythic purpose in life is often very amusing and ultimately, quite touching. Helms dials it down considerably from the roofie -dosed hijacks and delivers an all-too-human portrayal of a man losing his grip on what’s important in life. It’s also fanatic to see Sarandon (looking incredible for her 65 years) finding a role which really plays to her strengths and still allows for the actress to access that sensual side which is palpable in her all best work (well, perhaps with the exception of Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking).
It’s no surprise to see director Jason Reitman credited as one of the producers on the project. His own nuanced, character-centric (albeit on a larger budget) worlds are similar to that of the brothers, and the filmmakers share that same fascination for flawed figures who seem to live by their own terms and in a different stratosphere to the rest of the world around them. That often makes for a very watchable, if unconventional, viewing experience and Jeff, Who Lives at Home is certainly a welcome and endearing addition to that canon.