The title Jeff, Who Lives at Home sounds so tossed off as to be careless, but the latest movie from the brotherly filmmaking team of Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus) is the farthest thing from it. Their most fully realized film yet is not just planned, it’s pointed, a piece of domestic comedy that starts with the unappealing sight of an overgrown slacker hunched on a faux leather couch in a dingy basement and subtly winds its way into a tender, wise and completely delightful film about family.
Even the title, with that deliberate comma, ends ups feeling exactly right. You can imagine Jeff’s (Jason Segel) exasperated mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) talking to her friends about her two sons: you know, Pat (Ed Helms, almost unrecognizable behind an aggressive goatee), the married paint salesman who is kind of a jerk and Jeff, who lives at home with her in Baton Rouge. (Their dad died when the kids were teenagers.) Both sons are worth rolling their eyes over — smarmy Pat and unemployed Jeff who, though 30 years old, can’t be trusted to take care of a simple errand for his mother — but Jeff is the more easily identified disaster.
There’s a second meaning to the title, namely the implication that Jeff is only living at home. That is, he’s not engaging in life anywhere else. The whole family suffers some variation on this problem — Sharon never moved beyond the sorrow of her widowhood while Pat lives within a constant state of contempt for the rest of the world. They’re busted flat in Baton Rouge and all of them need to get out of the proverbial house, starting with Jeff.
The movie opens with Jeff tape recording his thoughts about his admiration for M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Signs, shorthand to describe how impossibly gullible he is. A few minutes later he intercepts a wrong number from an caller vehement about the importance of finding “Kevin” and interprets that as a sign intended for him. As Jeff ventures out of the house to get wood glue for his mother, he’s on full alert for Kevins. His meandering path through the strip malls and sprawl of unpretentious suburbs fortuitously intersects with that of Pat’s, who has ticked off his wife Linda (Judy Greer) by buying a Porsche. Amid a flurry of coincidence, Linda’s fidelity is thrown into question and the sparring brothers end up on an odyssey to investigate.
All of this takes place in one day, a slapstick-filled Bloomsday for characters more Bloom County than James Joyce (with his open heart, Jeff would be Opus, Pat would have to be Steve Dallas), within a setting as blandly American as what most of us see out our front door. The movie is shot without fuss, nothing arty, just drab reality. The Duplass brothers, who co-wrote and co-directed, cut between Pat and Jeff’s adventure and Sharon’s day at her office job, where things, including a revelation about a secret admirer, actually happen to her. (A 60-something woman with a storyline? Hallelujah.) Sarandon gives a terrific performance as the kind of woman she has rarely played, a little insecure and a lot lonely. It’s a winning cast all the way around, Greer, Rae Dawn Chong (playing one of Sharon’s co-workers) and Helms (The Hangover), who is hilariously odious and then surprisingly vulnerable.
Then there’s Segel’s Jeff, who dresses and lives like a teenager perpetually home sick or skipping school. Though I’ve liked Segel in virtually every role I’ve seen him in, from Forgetting Sarah Marshall way back to Freaks and Geeks, I’ve never cared about any of his characters as much as I cared about Jeff. He doesn’t say much; most of what Segel does is react. When Jeff explains to a young man in a purple basketball jersey with KEVIN written on the back why he’s been following him, the kid squints and says, “It’s kind of a common name,” sending a tremor of disappointment through Jeff. Sensing that, the kid adds “Everything happens for a reason, right?” prompting a barely perceptible brightening in Jeff; maybe, just maybe, this encounter did mean something. I hope I don’t make him sound like Forrest Gump, but his enthusiasm and optimism is infectious. This is the kind of Jeff who lives at home and also in your heart.