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‘Jeff, Who Lives at Home’: Droll search for the meaning of life

Pat (Ed Helms, left) is arrogant enough to assume that he can get away with parking in a spot reserved for disabled drivers, and is ready to blame the universe when he gets caught doing it. His brother, Jeff (Jason Segel), a believer in karma and celestial balance, views this outcome as just desserts ... but is far too polite to say as much. These differing views of life, the universe and everything will prove important, as these brothers navigate what turns into a most unusual day. Courtesy photo

Left to right: Ed Helms plays Pat and Jason Segel plays Jeff in JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME, from Paramount Pictures and Indian Paintbrush. 064_JLH-01443

By
From page A11 | March 23, 2012 |

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home”

3.5 stars

Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong

Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and drug use

I love pleasant surprises.

Ed Helms has a knack for finding indie dramedies with just the right blend of charm and offbeat quirkiness. He scored last year at about this time, with just such a project: the completely adorable “Cedar Rapids.” Despite its lower profile and far smaller box-office take, it was far more satisfying than his obligatory return to gross-out form a few months later, in “The Hangover, Part II.”

Folks who enjoyed “Cedar Rapids” will find the same delights in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” … and it isn’t even Helms’ film. Granted, he has a crucial co-starring role, but this whimsically bent effort from the writing/directing team of Jay and Mark Duplass belongs mostly to star Jason Segel.

Although … no … that’s not entirely correct. Helms plays an equally important role, as does co-star Susan Sarandon. And Judy Greer. And Rae Dawn Chong.

That’s the secret behind indie hits like this one: The filmmakers pay equal attention to each of the ensemble’s well-crafted characters.

Thirtysomething Jeff (Segel) has stalled out on the highway of life. To the enduring frustration of his mother, Sharon (Sarandon), he leads an isolated existence in her basement: trapped not by circumstance but more by choice.

Obsessed by a search for “meaning” in all of life’s events, even the least significant, Jeff is frozen into near-immobility by indecision. The 2002 film “Signs” has become his personal Bible, and Jeff watches it repeatedly, struck anew each time by how the narrative wraps minutia and trivia into a Highly Significant Outcome.

Jeff’s brother, alternatively, seems to have adhered to the traditional American career and lifestyle path: Pat (Helms) has a stable job and is married to Linda (Greer). But their relationship is rocky at best, their once-mutual affection now smothered by Pat’s self-centered arrogance, condescension and hair-trigger temper. He is, in short, a jerk … and a rather unpleasant one, at that. Jeff may be “useless” in the conventional sense, but at least he’s a nice guy.

Quite sweet, actually, and that’s crucial to Segel’s performance. He has a knack for projecting good-hearted gentleness from characters with glaring flaws. We can’t help adoring Jeff, despite his obvious shortcomings; he’s like a lost little lamb in a grizzly bear’s body.

All these characters will experience a beguiling epiphany during what seems an ordinary day, when Sharon calls Jeff and demands — under threat of being thrown out of the house — that he get off his duff, ride the bus downtown, and buy some wood glue so that he can fix a kitchen cabinet door. Stung into at least a semblance of action, Jeff attempts to do just that.

But his day actually began a bit earlier, with a wrong-number caller wanting to reach somebody named Kevin. Now obsessed with a search for meaning that somehow involves the name Kevin, Jeff’s trip downtown becomes Homeric in its collection of assorted escapades. Along the way, he “coincidentally” stumbles across Pat, frantic over the fact that Linda may have left him, and indeed may already be having an affair.

Elsewhere, from the comfort of the cubicle she inhabits in some sort of office setting, Sharon is being gently stalked by a “secret admirer” who wafts paper airplanes and sends friendly, flirty messages via inter-office email. At a point in her life where the thought of intimate companionship has become a distant memory, Sharon frets that somebody is setting her up for a cruel practical joke.

Sharon shares this concern with Carol (Chong), an office mate who clearly has listened attentively to many of this woman’s tales of woe, particularly those involving Jeff.

The Duplass brothers sketch all these characters through behavior and circumstance, gradually building fully fleshed individuals who — despite this film’s slightly bent view of our world — win our hearts and minds. It becomes impossible to ignore Jeff’s belief that everything happens for a reason; he’s so darn sincere about it. We start to wonder about our own paths not taken; in some ways, this film is an amusing, real-world cousin of 1998’s “Sliding Doors.”

Segel anchors this film with his earnest, baby-faced sincerity. Even as we sympathize with his mother’s exasperation, it’s impossible to fully criticize Jeff. He’s stuck, somehow, and the film dangles two mysteries: What prompted this inertia, and how might it be overcome?

Sarandon, as ever, is fascinating to watch; she imbues Sharon with beguiling complexity and deeply layered emotions, often conveyed with precisely timed sideways glances and twitches of her lips. Sarandon is an undersung master of the less-is-more approach to acting; she can build more personality with silence and a thoughtful gesture than most other actors can manage with pages of dialogue.

Helms has the toughest character arc: We loathe Pat at first blush, particularly for the way he browbeats his wife. This guy has nowhere near the cuddly underbelly that made Helms’ performance in “Cedar Rapids” so charming; Pat has turned verbal abuse into an art form. And yet — and this is crucial — we eventually recognize that he’s just as stuck as his stoner brother: trapped by expectation and circumstance into a mode of behavior that clearly isn’t working.

Greer, delivering another persuasive variation of the “wronged wife” she handled so well in “The Descendants,” once again makes the most of minimal screen time. It’s hard not to wince when Linda flinches at her husband’s verbal assaults; Greer makes her character’s helpless, hopeless pain feel real.

I wish Jay and Mark Duplass paid as much attention to narrative detail, as they do to character construction. For a guy with what seems an average lower-middle-class job, Pat throws money around like a Beverly Hills millionaire; that’s an irritating detail in this story, as is the apparent absence of consequences regarding Pat’s reckless driving. In their efforts to be whimsical, the Duplass brothers clumsily disregard essential plot logic.

So no, this film isn’t perfect. Some scenes and narrative hiccups try too hard, leaving us to wish for more of the graceful subtlety Sarandon delivers in all of her scenes. But everything builds to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. As I’ve said many times before, indie charmers can be a delicious treat, because they arrive in stealth mode, unencumbered by the full-bore publicity assault of their big-studio, mega-budget cousins.

“Jeff” is a quiet pleasure that also demonstrates perceptive insight into human nature … even as it revolves around characters we’d never, ever want living next door.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

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