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‘Jeff, Who Lives at Home’ Review

Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Paramount Pictures

I have a friend who works in the mental health field. One time he told me (quite possibly in violation of every ethical oath he’s taken) about a divorced father who kidnapped his kid because he was convinced his ex-wife had been replaced by an alien. As he was working on the case he realized that the move to commit this man to an institution flew in the face of watching a lifetime of movies. If it were Hollywood, the third act would reveal that he was right all along.

To my delight and surprise a similar bit of musing is one of the core concepts of Jay and Mark Duplass’ remarkable ‘Jeff, Who Lives At Home.’ 

The titular Jeff, played to non-stereotyped perfection by Jason Segel, is a cannabis enthusiast in his mother’s basement. He presents himself giving a half-infantile/half-sage interpretation of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’ to a tape recorder. On the toilet. A ridiculous way to offer up a personal philosophy but, hey, it works for him.

His mother, Susan Sarandon, is a harried cubicle-worker and all she wants for her birthday is for her good-for-nothing kid to remember to pick up wood glue. She even goes to far as to call her other son, Ed Helms with an Evil Spock goatee, in the hopes that he’ll help Segel off the couch to achieve this, the most simple of goals.

Helms has his own issues, chiefly living in a cloud of self-denial about his crumbling marriage and how pissing away savings on a Porsche is probably not going to do much to reverse the process. It’s when Helms spots Segel moping along the road through the Hooters’ window that the somewhat magical, but strangely mundane adventure of ‘Jeff, Who Lives At Home’ starts to take off.

Jeff, who has spent the last fifteen years searching for any sort of outward sign to give his life direction, takes a TV commercial and a call to a wrong number to be the indicators of a higher truth and, as such, is off following anything that involves the name Kevin. This leads to a funny/sad/perhaps racially insensitive moment on a basketball court as well as hitching along the back of a candy delivery truck.

Jeff’s determination to follow his instincts act as a catalyst to get his brother’s matrimonial woes in the open and, perhaps just through the vibes, even shake his mother out of a day-to-day torpor. What we learn, in a natural and unforced manner, is that the family has never quite dealt with the death of the  father/husband, and it is going to take an act of extreme courage (and maybe a little pot-fueled hippie synchronicity crap) to bring them any closure.

Listen, I hate big, bawling family movies where everyone is healed through the magic of spilling their guts and hugging. ‘Jeff, Who Lives At Home,’ isn’t that. It is, primarily, a very funny situational comedy with Segel and Helms hiding behind bushes and chasing after philandering spouses, with an extra dash of Sarandon’s awkwardness at the workplace. In a subtle fashion, however, there are genuine philosophical notions and earned moments of emotional resonance. I’ll roll my eyes all day long at the bombast of ‘War Horse’ or ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,’ but I did get choked up by ‘Jeff, Who Lives At Home.’

Praise belongs to the whole cast, but one must offer a special salute to Jason Segel. The man-child trope is so done to death by now it feels that only a comedy about Nobel-winning physicists will seem fresh. Segel’s Jeff finds that fine line between being a laughingstock and a Gump-esque inadvertent genius. It broadens his range considerably and is his best role to date.

There may be a few film festival purists beating their breasts that ‘Jeff, Who Lives At Home’ is a sell-out from the indie upstarts Jay and Mark Duplass. This is nonsense. I hope they continue to work with top talent at whatever budget is necessary to tell the unique and touching stories the feel compelled to tell.

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