Despite bigger budgets and higher-profile casts, writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus) have stayed true to their lo-fi, improvisational aesthetic, and Jeff, Who Lives at Home marks a sort of homecoming for the brothers, who themselves lived at their parents’ home in New Orleans while shooting this Baton Rouge-set family drama. The Duplasses make films about ordinary people and shoot for realism with moving results, but their style, all handheld camera work and tight close-ups, may suffer as their movies play wider on bigger screens.
Jeff (Jason Segel), who lives at home, is stuck and has been ever since his father died when he was a teen. Jeff seeks meaning in random incidents, looking for signs to guide his actions. In fact, his favorite movie is Signs, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 movie that perhaps reveals just how long ago the Duplasses first wrote this script. He philosophizes from his mother’s basement from behind his considerable bong.
Jeff’s mom Sharon (Susan Sarandon) is worried about him and would like to get him out of the house, even if just for the day. She calls him from her anonymous cubicle, instructing him to get on the bus, go to the hardware store and pick up some wood glue to fix a broken shutter in the kitchen. She’s frustrated with her son and frustrated with her life, which feels like it’s over even though she’s still a vital, vibrant woman. She attempts to tamp down the little thrill she feels when a secret admirer starts flirting with her at work, afraid she’s the butt of a cruel joke.
Meanwhile, Jeff’s asshole brother Pat (Ed Hems, who’s usually the lovable doof but here plays against type) and his wife Linda (Judy Greer) reach an impasse when he parks a brand-new Porsche Boxter in the driveway of their dumpy apartment building. Over the course of the day, these three somewhat estranged family members’ lives collide in unexpected and transformative ways.
Ultimately, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a study of character and relationships, and as such, it neglects the incidental details, like what its characters do for a living. Sharon’s role at her generic office job is unspecified. All we know about Pat’s occupation can be gleaned from the Poplar Paint Company logo on his button-down shirt (and that he takes meetings at Hooters). Jeff, of course, does nothing, but his belief in kismet—that everything happens for a reason—infuses and shapes the events of the day.
The Duplasses’ approach of “studied improvisation,” which attempts to capture realism by encouraging actors to go off-script and find the authentic emotion in a scene, is especially suited to Jeff and his family. Each is trying to articulate complex thoughts or communicate complicated feelings. In real life, people aren’t so eloquent during highly charged moments—nor are the characters here.
At the same time, the documentary-esque camera work is aggressively close-up and handheld, with quick pans and zooms that are annoying at first and eventually literally painful to watch. Still, this signature style, perhaps because it focuses on the characters’ faces, proves particularly apt for capturing the subtlest of exchanges, providing a poignant and ultimately wrenching portrayal of the ties that bind.
Directors: Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass
Writers: Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass
Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer
Release Date: Mar. 16, 2012