Monday, March 19, 2012

Man on Film: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jay and Mark Duplass turn their character-driven brand of dry indie comedy toward a scarred and breaking Thompkins family. At its center is Jeff (Jason Segel), the 30-year-old titular younger brother who has been aimlessly adrift since the death of their father 15 years earlier. Living in his mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement, he hasn't had a meaningful connection with another human being while waiting for his destiny to come to him.

While sitting on the couch waking and baking, he gets what he perceives as his call from destiny. The rest of the day sees Jeff--a believer in the interconnectedness of the universe and predestination (although not a strict Calvinist)--following what he hopes to be the signs that will give meaning to his life. Jeff's path down the path to his destiny takes him off the task his mother initially asked him to embark on and brings him into the heart of his brother Pat's (Ed Helms) crumbling marriage.

Where the brothers Duplass succeed is in making their characters real. As always, their film is populated with imperfect people. They are neither wholly good or bad. Rougher exteriors give away to softer interiors. Characters are vulnerable one minute and hurt someone else the next. While their characters don't always do the right thing, the Duplasses never lose contact with the film's heart. Sure, the characters are capable of doing hurtful things, but there is never the sense that the filmmakers do not have a love for their characters.

For their part, the cast drives the film home. Susan Sarandon hits each note of quiet loneliness with perfect pitch. Judy Greer finds her place in the pit of marital discord and settles right in, nailing the discontent, sadness, and disappointment. Managing to be both a prick and vulnerable, Ed Helms zigs and zags across the line between being callous and being sympathetic. Most important, though, is Segel. Given the type of role he excels in--the emotionally damaged but kind-hearted slacker whose quirky outlook can make him seem odd to others--Segel is the heart of Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Like Nick Andopolis or Peter Bretter before him, Jeff Thompkins is a role tailor-made to play to Jason Segel's strengths.

While some could take an ideologically oppositional stance with the larger implications of the film's conclusion, and by extension its message, it seems like the Duplass brothers manage to step back a little bit from a place that could be considered preachy or heavy handed. By keeping the film's focus and subject matter relatively small, they avoid applying too unwieldy a belief system over the simpler foundation of Jeff, Who Lives at Home. What they are left with is an affective indie comedy for which they can be proud.

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