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It’s hard to make a movie about nice people. Assholes and anti-heroes are easy to write about because their inherent character flaws lead to conflict, struggle and resolution. Movies about well-meaning individuals, however, replace all that with miles of heart, and few movies released in the last few years have as much as Jay and Mark Duplass’ Jeff, Who Lives At Home.
The titular Jeff (Jason Segel) is trapped in arrested development. He lives in his mom’s basement, has no job prospects, smokes a lot of pot, obsesses over M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, and waits for the universe to tell him what his next step is. But when his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), sends him out to buy some wood glue one afternoon and Jeff is forced into the outdoors, he gets distracted and thinks he’s found the path that he’s been looking for. While following his “sign”, he runs into his older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), and discovers that Pat’s wife (Judy Greer) may be cheating on him. All the while Sharon receives a message of her own that seems tangential, but does show that the universe works in mysterious ways.
Jeff, Pat and Sharon are all flawed, but from the get-go they're all trying to improve their own stations in life. Jeff may seem like a feckless loser, but the truth is that he wants to move on with his life and just doesn’t know the way. Pat comes across as a self-important dickhead, but his devotion to his wife cannot be questioned. Sharon has lost her lust for life, but she’s still searching for that spark. While all of us may not have dealt with the same situations in our lives, they are all familiar emotions and create a bond between audience and character that is all too rare.
The story in Jeff, Who Lives At Home is simple, but it’s tremendously well-told. Equal time is given between Jeff, Pat and Sharon when the characters are apart, but it’s handled beautifully by the Duplasses, who are careful never break the flow of the story. Similarly, the structure of the film is invisible, but it’s hard not to marvel at the way the characters come together and break apart, feeding in perfectly with the movie’s themes of fate and destiny. Our protagonists don’t gravitate toward each other because it’s what it says they do on the page, but because the universe is pushing them.
The film deals in interesting philosophies and complex family relationships, but it’s also a comedy first and foremost. Though they haven’t made the year’s most consistently funny movie, the Duplasses mine a lot of humor from their characters, be it putting the gym shorts-wearing Jeff in a fancy restaurant where he has to “grease” the hostess and wear an undersized suit jacket, or Pat’s brand spanking new Porsche being put through the worst levels of hell. Where the writer/directors do slip a little is in the use of awkward humor, which was one of the greatest aspects of their last feature, Cyrus. While that film was able to play that tone perfectly because of the inherent stress between a son and his mom’s new boyfriend, it doesn’t gel as well here where it feels more uncomfortable than funny. Though noticeable, it never serves to be any real detriment to the film.
Even if you can’t get into the storylines or are bothered by the Duplass’ free-moving camera, the loveliness and heart of the characters is so deep that you can’t help but want to appreciate them. Walking out of the theater you may find yourself wondering what it would be like to see life through Jeff’s eyes. But while many of us can’t afford to leave our work and live the protagonist’s philosopher lifestyle, there’s still an incredible value in constantly searching for your own destined path.