There are at least two distinct laughs that a movie can provoke in an audience. One is when you laugh at a categorically comedic situation. A pratfall or a zinger would qualify here.
By Noah Gittell
There are at least two distinct laughs that a movie can provoke in an audience. One is when you laugh at a categorically comedic situation. A pratfall or a zinger would qualify here. The second is a laugh of recognition, when you see a character do something so very human, something you recognize in yourself, that you laugh and marvel at the actor’s ability to know you, the universality of your emotion, and how a small moment in a small film can make you feel connected to the universe.
“Jeff Who Lives at Home” is a moving film, full of both types of laughs, and it embodies the spirit of that interconnectedness. It is a miraculous tale about a family that has fallen apart. While it never glosses over the messiness of life, it radiates genuine optimism and a sense that everything is – not just will be — all right. “Jeff” is an unusual film, so it may not be for everyone – at least half the audience seemed disinterested – but if you like it, you will most likely love it.
Jason Segel plays Jeff, a 30-year-old slacker living in his mother’s basement. Jeff sits around all day, waiting for signs from the universe and thinking about his destiny, but somehow never seems self-involved. Segel, who first found success in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” is at his best when playing a character too innocent and vulnerable for life, and in his hands, a character that could have been a crude stereotype instead seems a unique and genuine person.
When assigned a simple chore by his mother, Jeff ventures from the house, but his day takes a sharp turn when he randomly encounters his estranged brother, Pat (Ed Helms). Together, they catch Pat’s wife in what they think is an affair, and the two brothers team up to investigate.
While Pat schemes to catch his wife in the act, Jeff continues to look for signs that will help them on their journey. It’s a bit of a neat trick by the filmmakers. Jeff and Pat run into several coincidences that in some movies would seem contrived and unrealistic. Here, those coincidences are just destiny at work.
As a bumbling duo of amateur detectives, Segel and Helms provide some big laughs, but the history of their characters’ complex relationship always bubbles just beneath the surface. Like many siblings, they seem not to have been close growing up and are now operating with completely different motives. Jeff spends the day with Pat because he thinks that a series of signs have led him there. For Pat, the reason is simpler: he just doesn’t have anyone else to help him.
For a comedian who plays mostly genial types, Helms’ comedy has always had a dark edge to it. Here, that darkness gets more screen time. His Pat is a man-child who has never properly grieved over the loss of his father. It is a sympathetic portrayal, but Pat is clearly the problem in all his relationships. And given a narrowly written role, Helms does a terrific job of creating a well-rounded character.
In discussing the cast, I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words about Susan Sarandon. Playing the boys’ mother, she sets the story in motion by assigning Jeff a task that gets him off the couch, but she carries her own thematically-related subplot, in which she seeks to determine the identity of her new secret admirer at work. She spends most of the movie sitting in a cubicle, but it is a vibrant performance that made me wonder where she has been for the last ten years.
The movie was written and directed by the Duplass brothers, who have made a series of terrific low budget, independent films in the last decade. Now, with “Jeff” and last year’s “Cyrus,” they have embraced bigger budgets and the use of movie stars to expand their audience. But fans that worry about a dilution of their artistry in favor of commercialism need not worry. Their depiction of young people struggling earnestly with life’s biggest questions remains independent of falsity and sentimentality. Much like their hero in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”, they have embraced a larger world without losing sight of what’s important to them.
* My rating: See it in the Theater