In one sense, Mark and Jay Duplass continue their march toward the mainstream with Jeff, Who Lives at Home, their latest writing-directing effort. After all, the Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips bloodlines merge in the form of co-stars Jason Segel and Ed Helms. But Jeff isn’t the sort of vulgar but heartfelt comedy one might expect from that those leading men. There’s no Segel nudity to speak of, and Helms tones down his familiar likable-frat-boy comic relief shtick. Segel plays a slacker, sure, but one imbued with a higher purpose. He’s stuck home, planted on the couch, waiting for a sign to point him toward his destiny.
The Duplass brothers’ latest is exactly the sort of whimsical, slight indie enterprise that would be centered on such a character, the sort of movie that begins with Segel’s Jeff waxing poetic about the deeper meaning of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs before the start of an ordinary day-in-the-life that spins ever so slightly out of control. Helms plays his estranged brother Pat, who has business lunches at Hooters and buys Porsches he can’t afford. When Pat discovers his wife Linda (Judy Greer) might be having an affair, he enlists Jeff in some reconnaissance.
From there, the movie embarks on a perilously low-key journey that involves lots of earnest soul-searching, in the main narrative thread and within a subplot featuring Susan Sarandon as the brothers’ mom Sharon. The picture’s understated tone and laid back visuals are a refreshing departure from the expected madcap comic spectacle. The filmmakers squarely emphasize the characters and their interior journeys, placing a premium on the performances by trusting their top-notch leads to imbue the roles with enough interesting qualities to keep the picture afloat.
It’s an admirable gambit, and one that doesn’t pay off. The actors do what they can, with Segel making Jeff into a likable big-hearted lug, Helms imbuing Pat with palpable sadness and Sarandon seeming genuinely worn down. But the movie needs more personality, more of the oddball, jolting sensibility that Jonah Hill brought to the Duplass’ Cyrus, for example. By painstakingly writing their characters as mundane, recognizable people, the filmmakers haven’t given their stars enough to work with.
We’re never given enough of a sense of what these people want, beyond abstractions such as a purpose (Jeff), a vacation (Sharon), and some added excitement (Pat). Sure, everyone wants to be happy, and we all find our happiness in different ways, but that notion isn’t sufficient basis for a movie. There has to be something more, a deeper and more interesting struggle that informs that universal search for happiness. Otherwise, we’re just watching ourselves, and what’s the point? Jeff is short of that essential added spectacle, the visceral, tumultuous event that shakes up the characters and creates a journey worth taking.
Instead, the Duplass brothers offer an inconsequential plot, little humor, clichéd indie-flick visual set-ups and an altogether ponderous sensibility. The tone changes at weird times and they don’t earn the cathartic climax. To be clear: modern day filmmaking needs more of the Duplass’ old-fashioned humanist leanings. Film culture would be far better if more of their peers truly committed to telling character-driven stories. With Jeff, they’ve simply encountered the unfortunately reality that not every one of them demands telling.
The Upside: The Duplass brothers make movies that stress characters and performances, not empty spectacle.
The Downside: There’s just not enough of a story here; the movie drifts along rather aimlessly.
On the Side: It’s a very busy time for Mark Duplass, who was seemingly everywhere at Sundance in January. He has four movies he’s acted in slated for release in the coming months, one he’s written that’s been picked up by a distributor (Black Rock), and another written and directed with Jay (The Do-Deca-Pentathlon) that’s opening in June.