With Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Mark and Jay Duplass add a sort of easy everything-is-connected spirituality to their previously established and by now unwieldy stew of modes and themes. Having already called on the road trip, the horror film, and the dark familial comedy, the Duplass brothers now reach for existential drama. But in their typical slapdash fashion, the filmmaking team tries their hand at slapstick comedy and location-specific observation in addition to plenty of what’s-my-purpose-in-life musing.
The whole thing feels at once as loose as the brothers’ trademark lurching faux-verité camerawork (which gets more tired with each film) and contrived-to-the-point-of-impossible-to-credit overdetermination. But when you take the interconnectedness of the universe as your theme, then I guess no plot development, no easy character resolution, is too obvious to fit into the overarching cosmic plan.
Actually, Jeff, Who Lives at Home—which tells the story of the eponymous 30-year-old stoner fuckup (a pitch-perfect Jason Segel) who lives at his mom’s Baton Rouge home while suffering a severe bout of depression, his douchey brother, Pat (Ed Helms), whose marriage is on the rocks, and their unsatisfied widowed mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon)—has nearly as many good moments as the Duplass’ three previous features combined. While the comedic bits are strictly hit or miss—the good (a discussion of the logistics of breaking down a motel door) jostling uncomfortably with the risible (a car chase in a half-destroyed Porsche)—and the film is far too indulgent of its male characters’ essential narcissism, it’s when the Duplass bros turn their attention to Jeff and Pat’s female counterparts that they often score their most incisive observations.
Witness a pair of sequences involving Jeff and Pat’s attempts to confirm the latter’s wife Linda’s (Judy Greer) potential infidelity. In the first, Pat spots Linda lunching with a male friend at a fancy restaurant and has Jeff take a table next to the couple to eavesdrop on their conversation. While Pat has been identified from the beginning of the film as an unlikably self-centered individual (though even this is tempered by the fact of his obvious insecurities), and while the plan is clearly of questionable propriety, the directors ask us to share in the adventures, sticking to the brother’s perspective and sealing our rooting interest in the success of their escapades when we overhear Linda’s date wax pseudo-poetic on the differences between “having sex” and “making love,” thus characterizing him as even more than a sleaze than Pat.
Later, though, when Pat confronts his wife about her potential infidelity, Linda’s monologue cuts instantly through her husband’s narcissism, deflecting claims of her poor choice of lovers by allowing that her decision to commit adultery isn’t because of what one particular man gives her but what her self-obsessed husband doesn’t. Similarly, Sarandon’s scenes, while of a lower order of achievement and not well integrated into the film’s structure, offer some nice moments of late-middle-aged sexual and personal awakening, even if the film hedges its bets in its treatment of lesbianism.
But for the most part, this is a boys-will-be-boys movie that excuses everything its pair of protags do in the name of some sort of cosmic order. While it’s Jeff that’s obsessed with the interconnectedness of the universe, the film itself takes on much of the character’s worldview. Thus when characters run across each other in the most unlikely of places, it’s not a plot contrivance, but something like the grand scheme of the cosmos. Worse, though, this easy spirituality allows Jeff and Pat to achieve redemption without having to really rethink their priorities. Both are given their moment of heroism, Pat realizes his personal shortcomings and—just like that!—alters his rotten character, and both are rewarded for their essential narcissism. Even as Jeff comes to the realization that life isn’t all about him, the movie more or less goes on to suggest that it is. For all its intermittent laughs, its low-key, tonally exact lead performance and its occasional moments of insight, the movie feels as contrived as its simplistic view of the universe and as unchallenging as a day spent by its eponymous protagonist taking bong hits in the comfort of his familial home.