Jeff, Who Lives at Home doesn’t require you to accept a belief in fatalism as a world view. It just requires you to embrace it for a sweet and somber 83 minutes. And, really, that’s not too much to ask of any moviegoer. Maybe what sets Mark and Jeff Duplass, who co-wrote and directed Jeff, Who Lives at Home, apart is that they ask this of the viewer up front.
The titular character, played by Jason Segel, is a 30-year-old burnout, who, you guessed it, lives at home with his mother and seems to spend much of his time watching infomercials and overanalyzing forgettable Hollywood blockbusters. Jeff’s latest preoccupation is M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 hit Signs, which he reminds us leans heavily on fate in its resolution. (Abigail Breslin’s Bo, if you recall, leaves unfinished glasses of water all over the house that are subsequently used to vanquish the invading aliens.)
This is a setup in two ways. It plants fatalism in the back of your mind, a theme that is weaved throughout the film, but is critical to its conclusion. And it tricks you into underestimating Jeff as the prototypical adolescent-in-a-30-year-old-body that Segel has played several times already in comedies like Knocked Up and I Love You, Man. He doesn’t simply need to grow up like, say, any character in a Judd Apatow vehicle, as it turns out.
Anyway, Jeff — bumming around in his basement — receives two phone calls that set the film in motion. One is a wrong number; the caller is looking for Kevin, and though there is no Kevin present, Jeff — Signs on the brain — interprets it as the omen he ought to follow, on that particular day at least, to find his true destiny. The other is from his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who is worried about her son drifting through life and asks just one thing of him on her birthday — that he fix the broken shutter in her house.
Jeff sets out to fulfill his mother’s birthday wish, but is quickly derailed by a series of Kevins — a jersey here, a delivery truck there — and so Sharon turns to Jeff’s older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), to get him back on track.
Though both Sharon and Pat see Jeff as a wayward soul, it’s quickly apparent that, really, all three of them share that trait, the result of the traumatic and untimely death of Pat and Jeff’s father (and, ostensibly, Sharon’s husband) during the boys’ adolescence. Sharon is lonely, so much so that the attention of a secret admirer at her office is enough to make her day. Pat, meanwhile, is locked in an increasingly unhappy marriage. When he suspects that his wife Linda (Judy Greer) may be cheating on him, he enlists Jeff as a sort of amateur P.I., making it even more unlikely that Jeff will ever fix that darned shutter.
Fixing the shutter isn’t that important, of course. It’s repairing Pat and Linda’s marriage and curing Sharon’s deep isolation that is. Curiously enough, Jeff seems to have the fewest problems — the least heartache — at least when it comes to his nuclear family. I won’t spoil the ending. I won’t even hint at it because it’s so surprising and tense and satisfying, that you should experience it yourself.
What I will say is that Jeff, Who Lives at Home asks you not to be cynical, or at least to seize the moments in life when you don’t have to be. That’s a message worth delivering, and responding to, in a time when so much at the theater (and on television, for that matter) drips with cynicism and carries great, oppressive, serious weight.
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s the best I’ve seen from the Duplass brothers and also the best I’ve seen this year.
Screening Room Rating: 10 out of 10