By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Though one might initially add “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” to a list of films inspired by the recession, it isn’t economic cataclysm that has kept our title character ensconced in the comfort and security of his mother’s basement. Nope, it’s much more complex, a psychological conundrum the directorial Brothers Duplass tackle with mixed results.
Enticing by its off-the-beaten-track foray into the psyches of its main characters, souls in search of something or other and noticeably damaged in varying degree, the small, independent-look style is familiar. But while thus provocative and a refreshing retreat from the sturm und drang of mainstream fare, ultimately it is more sweet than epiphanic.
And aw shucks, just as my horoscope had predicted, I sure was jonesing for something epiphanic. Yet, while no big revelations come from this saga about how Jeff, enamored of the movie “Signs” (2002), reads his destiny into every occurrence, if you see it with the right folks, the chat thereafter might prove a stimulus for your own flash of brilliance.
Or not. In such case, like one of those dreams that merely reworks the rigors of the day, this then only leaves you with an alternately charming and confounding traipse through the business of being human. Which, for some, might be a welcome change. Good, but not great, performances by Jason Segel, Susan Sarandon and Ed Helms glue it together.
Whether you call it fate, providence, karma, or what have you, Jeff, played by a now over 30 Jason Segel, has picked up where philosophers since time immemorial have left off…contemplating his destiny with a soul-searching intensity. Fact is, he does very little else. That is, until he gets an erroneous (or was it?) phone call asking for Kevin.
Certain it’s a sign, a clue to his path through the mysteries of the universe, immediately all things Kevin rule Jeff’s life. Coinciding with his older, married brother Pat’s suspicion that his wife is cheating on him, a perfect storm of happenstances occurs when the possible cuckold, played by Ed Helms, solicits Jeff’s help in his time of marital disarray.
Meanwhile, Mom, portrayed by Susan Sarandon, too young the widow and working in a nondescript office/cubicle situation that pretty much epitomizes her dull-as-dishwater life, only wants one thing for her birthday. Having left money on the counter, she’d like Jeff to buy some glue and fix a shutter in the kitchen. It just may be too much for him.
A picture in the living room of Jeff in a Harvard basketball uniform tosses us a key. I’ve known people like Jeff. The challenge of everyday life is so simple that they don’t bother, opting instead to ponder the unknowable, hoping to find the bliss in their brilliance. In the interim, just as inactivity renders a body part vestigial, they lose touch with the easy stuff.
Pat, on the other hand, is a pragmatist, part-time cynic, and equally unhappy in the wannabe status he denies. However, while the circumstances prompting the teaming of the two brothers are not enviable, there’s nothing like a family crisis to encourage an emotional accounting, put things in perspective, and maybe even foster a little bonding.
So off they go on their adulterous wife chase, a semi-slapstick scramble through Baton Rouge, inevitably steered by segues at each Kevin sighting. In-between resulting melees and watershed discoveries, they take inventory of their lives, their relationship and the rationalizations that have formed them. In turn, we get a glance into their personalities.
Not a big peek, mind you, but just a subtle enough inkling to remind us that, as similar as we are, we’re just as much different, and essentially inscrutable. Norms of behavior are the convenient quantifications of psychologists. But for us out here, often prone to bleat, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” certainly it’s humbling enough reason to embrace tolerance.
On a far less rarified plane, Susan Sarandon’s stoical Mom also finds herself face-to-face with her plight in life when hope springs from her computer screen in a mysterious e-mail. It’s a “secret admirer.” Although Mom’s the buttoned-down sort, Carson McCullers wasn’t just whistling Dixie when she said the heart is a lonely hunter. She bites.
We laugh and anguish over the seriocomic survey of our nobleness and foibles, glad when a chord is struck, upset when it seems we won’t be discovering the meaning of life. After all, while wittily assuring in a small, neo- “Harry and Tonto” (1974) way that we’re all in the same boat, what can you expect from a guy named “Jeff, Who Lives at Home?”
“Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” rated R, is a Paramount Vantage release directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass and stars Jason Segel, Susan Sarandon and Ed Helms. Running time: 83 minutes
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