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My 12 for ’12: Jeff Who Lives at Home & Living in Hope

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #9

The eponymous Jeff, from Jeff Who Lives at Home, feels like something of a cousin to the Judd Atapow “manchild” that we’ve seen popularised in films like Knocked Up of The 40 Year Old Virgin. He’s unreliable, lazy and smokes a not inconsiderable amount of pot. His mother can’t even count on him to fix a shutter door on her birthday, although he is quick to offer seemingly vacuous philosophical insights garnered from Star Wars and Signs. His brother Pat is hardly a run-away success, trapped in a failing marriage and prone to sit around Hooters all day, but at least he has thrived when compared to Jeff. Jeff is, by all accounts, a fool whose own naivety leads him to get beaten and mugged within the first half-hour of the film.

However, at the heart of Jeff Who Lives at Home, is a surprisingly romantic idea. There’s the notion that the universe is somehow a far more compassionate and understanding place than we might suspect. Jeff’s logic and reasoning might be far from convincing, and it’s easy to be cynical. However, Jay and Mark Duplass craft a story that suggests sometimes things work out just right.

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Jeff Who Lives at Home is essentially the story of a family dealing the loss of one its members. We never meet Jeff’s father, but his absence is keenly felt. It’s suggested that Jeff’s current status is due to the fact he never got over the loss of his father. There are other hints that the other members of the family unit are still coming to terms with the void left in their lives. Jeff’s mother, Sharon, has gone on a few dates (“come on, I’ve been to the movies!” she protests when a work colleague gets on her case), but she hasn’t necessarily gotten over his loss either. She’s stuck with Jeff living in her basement and Pat’s clear resentment of his “slacker” brother.

Apparently the death was random, as it so often is. There’s no indication that it was anything out of the usual, it was just a death that nobody really say coming. And that randomness makes Jeff uncomfortable. Talking with his brother, openly and honestly, Jeff suggests that his own philosophy is rooted in the suddenness and randomness of that loss. “You know, since Dad died, I’ve had this…  had this feeling that it had to be for a reason.” It’s an understandable position. If a passing has a meaning, it makes it somewhat easier to let go. If a person died for a purpose, or for some greater good, then we can come to terms. If there’s a reason, it makes sense and the pain hurts a little less.

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I think it’s a common enough feeling, and it’s something that a lot of people will recognise. One day, that person you love is just completely absent, and there’s no logic or structure to it. There are various ways of trying to make that passing make sense. Various religious beliefs might suggest the departure is part of some plan that we cannot hope to perceive. Jeff’s outlook on life clings to a similar hope. If everything is connected, and everything has a purpose, then his father did not die for no reason.

Jeff Who Lives at Home is remarkable because neither Jeff nor Pat begin the movie as likeable characters. The first extended interaction between Jeff and another person (rather than a wrong number or an infomercial) makes it clear that he is not really a productive member of the household. We’re immediately sympathetic to Sharon, who simply wants to she her son do something for her birthday. Jeff’s lame attempts to avoid making even the smallest gesture make him seem indifferent to the stress he creates.

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Similarly, our first scene with Pat establishes him as a self-centred and entitled brat who really has no idea of how much his wife has come to dislike the way that he communicates (or refuses to communicate) with her. The one friend we see is really just a nodding sycophant, creating the immediate impression that Pat really isn’t a nice person. Of the three lead characters, only Sharon is initially sympathetic to the audience, and she seems to be the only person that we don’t start out disliking.

The outlook is initially quite cynical. Pat is in a marriage that is failing so severely that he can’t even realise how much trouble the relationship is actually in. Jeff is a shut-in failure of a man living in his mother’s basement and – even then – he is so lazy that it takes a threat of eviction to get him off the couch. Jeff Who Lives at Home starts in a place that seems like it might be rather jaded. And then, despite that, it ultimately embraces an optimistic world view – suggesting that perhaps Jeff’s view might be somewhat correct and that perhaps things are connected in ways that we don’t understand.

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Fate is arguably a handy narrative cop-out that writers can use to conveniently connect plot points that don’t necessarily fit otherwise. It’s a catch-all answer that helps explain away any handy plotting gaps, and I’m normally wary of it because it provides such an easy way out. Isn’t it lucky Jeff stumbles across Pat? Isn’t it convenient that they cross paths with Linda, Pat’s wife? How about the way that they end up at their father’s grave? The Duplass brothers’ cleverly structure that convenience into their script in a way that winds up seeming thematically elegant.

Jeff Who Lives at Home ultimately embraces some variant of Jeff’s existential philosophy, and suggests that everything is connected. The random name “Kevin” winds up leading Jeff on a journey that allows him to save the life of a father with two young children from what might have been a meaningless and random accident, perhaps the most impressive indication that there is some greater and unknown force at work.

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However, more than that, Jeff Who Lives at Home doesn’t just embrace a broader philosophy about the nature of the universe. It suggests that sometimes things are easier than we think they might be. Pat spends most of the movie dismissive of Jeff’s romantic advice, which pretty much consists of suggesting that Pat should be honest with Linda.

“Oh, my God,” Pat whines. “You have no idea how adult relationships work, do you? You haven’t had a girlfriend since high school.” After Pat explains his love and insecurity about Linda to his brother, Jeff advises, “I think you should just say that. To her.” It’s a simple and direct approach, and one that rejects any hint of cynicism. It involves complete and utter honesty with another person, which requires a great deal of faith and trust.

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Pat replies, “It’s not that simple, Jeff.” It’s suggested that he’s uncomfortable with the risk presented – the notion that he could be entirely honest with his wife, and she might reject him anyway – leaving him exposed and abandoned. Jeff’s world view might be innocent, but it’s also more sincere, “I don’t know. I think it could be that simple. I mean, wouldn’t you be psyched if Linda walked in here right now and sat down in this tub next to you and said, “Pat, I want to be in love with you again”?”

A more cynical film would offer some cruel twist on this. You might suspect that one is coming, given that Jeff’s initial quest to find Kevin finds him attacked and robbed. However, Jeff Who Lives at Home winds up being surprisingly sincere in its optimism, offering a universally happy ending for the characters.

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Hell, even the screen door gets fixed.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

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