Jeff is a jobless 30-year-old slacker man-child who does indeed live in the basement of his mother’s house. He is an expert at marijuana smoke rings, daytime television and pickup basketball but whines and protests when asked to perform a simple household errand for his mother (a wonderful Susan Sarandon). Lost and paralyzed, he casts desperately about for clues on what to do with his life, as per a favorite movie, 2002’s Signs, M. Night Shamalayan’s ridiculously self-serious examination of the eerie and paranormal.
So far the title character sounds like a cliché of the zeitgeist, but as played by the shambolically charming Jason Segel, and in the witty, expertly paced hands of the Duplass brothers, this movie is joyful entertainment from start to finish. Jeff is earnest and open-hearted. When the universe sends a sign, he follows. Never mind that every step ends in folly and humiliation. It is enough for him that there is a path.
That path merges him directly into the way of his distant, scornful brother, Pat (Ed Helms, channeling a lower-runged, far angrier version of his uptight corporate drone in The Office). Pat is an underling who has to spend his days in a hideous paint company shirt and tie, lives in a low-end apartment complex with his sweet and pretty wife (Judy Greer) and is suffering an early midlife crisis manifested by the purchase of a Porsche he can’t even begin to pay off, but hey, at least he has a job.
Thus begins a day that veers (to Jeff as though dictated by fate) from coincidence to coincidence, disaster to disaster. Jeff and Pat are cursed, it seems, and Pat’s rage exacerbates the situation at every turn. In lesser hands the picaresque aimlessness might strain, but the Duplass brothers’ fabulous screenplay finds the humor and humanity in even a mugging, and Segel’s natural and nuanced performance is a winning admixture of clueless cheerfulness, vulnerability and emotional bravery.
A true ensemble comedy (as opposed to last week’s Friends With Kids, a shameless vanity project that only cared about the outcome of its writer/producer/director/star’s character), Jeff makes us care about all its leads—Jeff, Pat, their mother, and Pat’s wife—and ties together their stories in an ending that’s unusually action-packed and satisfying climactic for a film of this genre and generation.
That fine scene is well-shot and paced, as is a spectacularly chaotic car crash-up in the first act. Unfortunately, this begs the question of why, with a production budget of $10 million (as opposed to $15,000 for the Duplass brothers’ first feature, 2007’s The Puffy Chair), Jeff should suffer wobbly camera, flat, suffocating composition and conspicuously bad focus in the more intimate scenes.
These flaws begin to feel less principles of the mumblecore aesthetic of which the brothers are famously adherents, and more youthful affectations they should have outgrown by now. Certainly they are unnecessary in this film, which has plenty of heartfelt charm, warmth and immediacy on its own.
This is a bromance of the most literal sort. The Duplass brothers’ very likable 2010 Cyrus also charted new territory in this generation’s examination of familial love, but Jeff, Who Lives at Home is larger, funnier and even more assured. In an era of the daringly gross, obscene and shocking comedy, Jeff is a daringly existential, sincere and uplifting one. For fans of great character-driven humor and story, or anyone just looking for a fun flick, it is a must-see.