by Tim Ross
When it comes to most offerings you see on the silver screen, Hollywood films usually strain belief in the form of overwrought action sequences, unbelievable feats of strength or survival against all odds. In “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” we’re asked to believe that a 30-year-old man lives in his mother’s basement with no job, no direction and no future.
Yes, there are boomerang kids – college graduates who ended up back at their parents’ house with no gainful means of employment – that’s one thing. But a 30-year-old guy smoking weed and watching infomercials all day is a bit of a hard plot – err, pill – to swallow. And yet Jason Segal, who’s made a career playing a lovable loser trying to get his life in gear, gives us reasons to pull for Jeff. And he’s in his comfort zone here after having just played another man-child in “The Muppets.”
Jeff has been spending a lot of time in the basement watching the Mel Gibson movie “Signs.” He suspects the film is trying to tell him something, and when his phone rings and a man looking for a Kevin is on the other line, Jeff is convinced that it’s more than a wrong number and follows “Kevin” signs all day.
Ed Helms is back in another stint as an everyman with a temper, this time as Jeff’s overbearing brother, Pat. It’s arguably the fourth time Helms has played such a role with two “Hangovers” and last year’s “Cedar Rapids” already on his résumé. And Judy Greer, who played a neglected wife with tenderness and a touch of neurosis in “The Descendents,” plays a similar role here as well.
Writers/directors the Duplass brothers don’t stray far from their usual exploration of the human condition through the eyes of average, if quirky, people. But where they do so with honesty in earlier films, “Jeff Who Lives at Home” sometimes feels pushed, as if the actors are playing at honesty, not simply being honest. Like a guitar that’s just the tiniest bit off-key, “Jeff Who Lives at Home” isn’t completely on pitch. Much like the main character, the story doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it grows up – a dark comedy (it needs more laughs for that), an unadulterated look at how many of us lead lives of quiet desperation but deep down want more (it needs less laughs for that) or just a stoner movie about a guy who lives in his mom’s basement.
The cast may be playing their stock characters, but they’re good at what they do and there are even more nuanced performances to enjoy as well. Susan Sarandon is delightful as Sharon, a member of a nondescript cubicle farm and the mother of Jeff and Pat. Sarandon shines as she subtly navigates the heartbreak of unrealized dreams and the mother’s hope that her children are as special as she believes them to be. And the side story of a secret admirer and their eventual meeting is a great twist on a familiar theme.
“Jeff Who Lives at Home” stumbles to break out of the familiar themes the Duplass brothers typically write and Segal and company typically play, but it’s when they work against that comfort zone that the movie rises above its standard indie film status and becomes a story worth telling. The plot may be figuratively stuck on the couch for portions of the film but there is a satisfying conclusion for our hero and his family. I suspect, however, that you’d be just as well off enjoying “Jeff Who Lives at Home” in your home when it comes out on DVD.
Grade 2.5/4 stars