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Non-Review Review: Jeff Who Lives at Home

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

There’s a common misconception about the films of Mark and Jay Duplass. It’s easy to confuse their films with comedies. Just look at the cast they assembled for Cyrus, including Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly (with Marisa Tomei taking home her Oscar for a comedic turn in My Cousin Vinny), or even the one they’ve gathered here. After all, Jason Segel is still most recognisable from How I Met Your Mother or The Muppets or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Ed Helms’ filmography includes The Office and The Hangover and Cedar Rapids. While Jay and Mark Duplass include a wonderful amount of humour in their work, it tends to distract away from their core themes or ideas. Beneath the awkward triangle in Cyrus, there’s a coming-of-age family drama. Underneath the witty exterior of Jeff Who Lives at Home, there’s a sincere and optimistic romantic drama. And I’m a sucker for romantic drama.

Rub a dub dub, two men in a tub...

I liked Cyrus, the last film from the duo, more than most. However, I will concede that it’s a deeply flawed film. Despite adopting a somewhat cynical position for most of its runtime, the climax of the movie takes a rather strange thematic u-turn, proving itself a surprisingly optimistic little movie. It seemed a bit surreal, and Jay and Mark Duplass struggled to keep the balance there. Here, on the other hand, there’s a strong romantic vibe running straight through the film, as the eponymous character tries to make sense of the world adhering to the surreal logic of M. Night Shymalan’s Signs.

That might seem like his first mistake, and the movie does laugh a bit at Jeff’s desperate need to make everything part of some grand design, but it’s never mean. In the opening moments of the film, Jeff receives a phonecall asking for a person named “Kevin.” Of course, there’s no Kevin present, and most of us would dismiss it as a simple missed call. Jeff, on the other hand, insists that the hand of fate it pointing its index finger directly at him. “What if there are no wrong numbers?” he demands in a moment of zen-like clarity. The copious amount of marijuana consumed probably helps with that.

Getting the third de-Greer...

Almost immediately thereafter, Jeff receives a phonecall from his mother, giving him a simple objective: go out and buy some glue to fix a broken shutter. And thus begins a truly epic adventure that brings together a family still struggling more than a decade after the loss of their father. There’s Jeff himself, whose attempts to find the right Kevin initially have less-than-promising results. There’s his brother Pat, who buys a Porsche he can’t afford and discovers that his wife may be having an affair. It’s telling that the Porsche almost seems to be the priority, at least initially. And then there’s their mother, who celebrates a significant birthday alone, without anybody to rely on… until a secret admirer makes themselves known.

All of this is more than a little bit hokey, but it works, because the film is surprisingly earnest. There’s no shortage of humour present, with Ed Helms and Jason Segel more than adept as comedians, but the movie’s most engaging feature is its idealism. Even after Jeff allows his quest for Kevin to distract him from the simple task of buying glue, the movie suggests that Jeff’s optimism is the best way of seeing the world – it’s not as stupid as Pat claims it is, nor as frivolous as his mother might suggest it is. Jeff believes that there are no such things as coincidences – and, of course, he’s right. This is a movie after all, so everything does happen for a reason.

Will Jeff answer the call?

I might be getting a bit softer as I grow up, but I actually appreciated the sincerity of the script from Jay and Mark Duplass. It’s well-observed and perfectly timed, never veering into excessively sentimental territory. More than that, though, the triumphs and the little coincidences that drive the plot feel sincerely earned, despite the relatively low-key nature of the plot. After all, Jeff is buying glue, he bumps into his brother, and his mother is having another day at the office.

The cast help a lot, with Segel and Helms providing an effective leading duo. However, the show is well and truly stolen by the supporting ladies. Judy Greer, the eternally underrated actress, provides an emotionally solid turn as Helms’ long-suffering wife – the movie doesn’t reduce her to the role of cold-hearted monster, nor to ignorant fool, and I think it’s the stronger for it. That said, the movie belongs to Sarandon, playing an “old and flabby” woman who never allowed herself any sort of intimacy after she lost her husband.

So I liked it, Sue me...

The movie’s most emotionally effective moments are based around Sarandon’s character, including a wonderful improvised kiss beneath a waterfall. There’s a perfect moment, when her admirer suggests that they do something together – something “bigger” than drinks at the mall. Sarandon sells that moment perfectly, as she opens up to another human being so completely. I think this could be the best Susan Sarandon performance in years.

In fact, it works so well that you don’t really mind that her plot isn’t ever driven by Jeff’s decision to leave the basement. While Pat never would have found out about his wife’s betrayal if he hadn’t bumped into Jeff, there’s no reason to suspect their mother’s plot would have played out any differently. Still, it’s a relatively minor plotting problem, and I’m willing to chalk that one up to coincidence… if there were such a thing in Jeff’s world.

Wall for one...

There is one other minor technical problem, and it stems from the decision by the Duplass brothers to film the movie handheld. While most shots are fine, the camera tends to wabble a lot in close-ups. It’s a little frustrating because these inevitably happen as the two leads are working at their peak, and diving into the heart of the screenplay. It happens infrequently, and it doesn’t last long enough to truly distract from the plot.

And so Jeff Who Lives at Home manages to be that rare movie that offers a convincingly romantic portrayal of reality, without ever reducing the infinite complexity of human interaction. It’s a superb little film, and one that I honestly loved. I know that I am probably a little bit sappy (perhaps it’s the sleep deprivation talking), but I think that the movie features the most emotionally affecting D.I.Y. sequence ever. As for whether Jeff ever finds Kevin? Well… that would be telling.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

(Actually, the ballot box wasn’t present outside the cinema, but that’s the score it would have got. The second “4” this year – when I only gave out one all of last year. I’m getting soft.)

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