[SFF 2012: Review] Jeff, Who Lives At Home
Next screening Saturday June 16 at 9.35pm – screening details and tickets
The secretly-brilliant stoner or slacker is not a new trope, but Jason Segel brings a goofy warmth in this latest film from Jay and Mark Duplass (the latter also appears in Safety Not Guaranteed,
Still with the low-budget, naturalistic vibe of their earlier work, the Duplasses have assembled a shrewd cast: Segel as the titular Jeff, Ed Helms as his brother Pat, Susan Sarandon as their widowed mother and Judy Greer as Pat’s long-suffering wife Linda. Jeff spends his time recording his thoughts, inspired by his favourite movie Signs (yes, the M Night Shyamalan crop-circles one), on a dictaphone while sitting on the toilet, and hitting the bong in his mother’s basement. Pat’s marriage is in trouble, not helped by the fact that he bought a Porsche without consulting Linda; Sharon has a secret admirer at work. It’s also her birthday and she calls Jeff to insist that all she wants is for him run a simple errand. On the bus, he sees “a sign”, gets distracted, and ends up helping Pat tail Linda in order to prove her infidelity; true to his theory, everything ends up being connected.
Greer is endlessly typecast as the snarky friend, hyper-competent PA or shrill antagonist, so it’s a treat to see her cast as an actual human – the character is actually fairly thinly written, a plot device for Pat’s journey through the day, and she fleshes it out nicely. Helms is deeply irritating – while the abrasive, self-centred Pat is not the most likable character, Helms makes the odd choice to channel Ben Stiller at his shouty, edgy worst, and it makes the third act of his subplot feel tiresome. And Sarandon is given little to do but be exasperated with her sons and awkward with her co-workers, though she manages to imbue everything with a touching, tentative optimism that nicely connects her to the character of Jeff.
In the midst of all this, Jeff follows his signs through the day, and is eventually rewarded. It is suggested subtly, and then explicated plainly, why it is that Jeff is determined to confirm that everything happens for a reason and fate is worth believing in. Jeff’s puppyish faith in this theory and desire to help others make him impossible not to root for. It could be argued that Pat and Sharon’s stories, as they skirt around Jeff’s treasure map of serendipitous incidents, feel thin precisely because they are incidental to the main story – Jeff’s signs, leading ultimately to the unexpectedly dramatic, if slightly underwhelming, denouement. But the low-key, rather than life-changing, ending serves to show that the Duplass brothers haven’t gone Hollywood yet. This is the story of just one, particularly eventful day, it seems to say – fate won’t do all the work for you.