A cursory look at "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" may lead to the conclusion that it's the weakest effort from sibling directors Mark and Jay Duplass, whose improvised DIY style has rapidly elevated them to studio attention since the success of "The Puffy Chair" over half a decade ago. Having worked their way to million dollar budgets and stars, the Duplass brothers have courted the danger of selling out for a few years now. Instead of accepting that fate, however, they continue to wiggle around it. "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" is another fascinating, occasionally transcendent example of the Duplass' unique ability to infiltrate Hollywood cinema with their brand of filmmaking techniques. While unquestionably a lesser effort by their standards, it nonetheless manages unexpectedly satisfying results.
Like "Cyrus," the brothers' fifth feature (including the long-completed but still-unreleased "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon") is never quite a comedy or a drama but some unseemly hybrid. That alone makes it ripe for analysis in spite of its flaws--and sometimes because of them. Jason Segel plays the title character, a full grown simpleton still living at the home of his mother, a solemn widow (Susan Sarandon) stuck in a drab office job and struggling with a midlife crisis. Jeff's troubles are simpler but also harder to diagnose: He's either unable or unwilling to get his act together, the result of his semi-delusional fixation on finding signs (and the M. Night Shyamalan movie "Signs") that point to his fate and the order of the entire universe.
First seen in unflattering close-up recording his inane convictions while sitting on the can, Jeff is an instant lost cause, but the people around him aren't doing much better. After being forced by his mother to head out on a rudimentary errand to buy some glue, Jeff naively follows patterns of his own making: A wrong number call on his landline for someone named Kevin leads him to chase after the word when he sees it elsewhere, first on a jersey and later on a bakery truck. His childlike persistence is a tough sell, until you consider how much it explains about his inability to live independently of his mother's support.
But Jeff is ironically the least disturbed character in the movie. His brother, Pat (Ed Helms), has presumably found a more stable existence than Jeff by marrying Linda (Judy Greer). However, Pat suffers from a materialistic fixation on buying a fancy new car, which he promptly crashes during an attempt to show off the new purchase to his brother. When he inadvertently discovers that his wife might be cheating on him around the same time, Pat launches on a hunt to track down the love birds, while Jeff - now firmly distracted from his glue hunt - tags along. Meanwhile, the brothers' mom endures the strange office advances of an anonymous admirer whose curious affections hint at a possible salvation from her own self-esteem issues.
Veering from slapstick comedy to soul-searching revelations, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" doesn't always satisfy expectations, but it also routinely defies them. Just as "Baghead" toyed with the horror genre before revealing its true colors as a lopsided romantic comedy, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" borrows the faces and situations of conventional American entertainment and uses them in an excitingly unique fashion.
Or at least it eventually does that. With the exception of a cleverly open-ended encounter between Jeff and a stranger from his neighborhood he attempts to befriend, the movie's first half is a middling farce less funny than the material demands. (Interstitial scenes involving Sarandon's character bring credible drama to the table, mainly due to her committed, fragile performance.) A contrived, tearful confrontation between Pat and his unfaithful wife threatens to drag the movie to unsalvageable depths, but then it slowly takes on a new life by moving in a stranger direction that gives new meaning to Jeff's absurd need to find a purpose behind everything. It turns out his goal is just a gratuitous version of the issue that the rest of his family members face as well. He's more of an everyman than he initially seems.
While the movie's climax takes place on a larger scale than anything else in the Duplass oeuvre, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" is still a small narrative based around the experiences of under a half dozen characters, just like the rest of their work (it also sports their trademark shaky camera style, along with a jarring tendency to use zooms in place of cuts). It takes awhile for the dynamic to gel, but once that happens, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" turns into the better movie it hints at for much of the running time. As always, the plot contains a softer, introspective element at war with the brash man-child humor on the surface. That this adult tone finally wins out saves the movie from the same aimless search for meaning plaguing its sloven anti-hero.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Paramount isn't releasing "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" until March 2012. In the meantime, the movie has been booked at numerous regional festivals around the country, presumably in an attempt to build buzz. Its tonal strangeness makes it a tough sell, but Segel and Helms are both popular enough to help raise the movie's profile and propel it to a respectable commercial performance.