If a 30 year old man who lives in his mother's basement and smokes pot all day told you everything is connected in the world, would you believe him? That's the premise of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (aka the Duplass Brothers, Cyrus, Baghead). It's an intriguing concept that plays with audience expectations and the role of the unreliable narrator. If you know there's no way the main character, Jeff (Jason Segel), could possibly have an accurate view of the world, how do you follow along with a single idea he has the rest of the film?
The humor of Jeff, Who Lives at Home comes from this conceit. Jeff's family--his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), and his brother, Pat (Ed Helms)--serve as a proxy for the viewer in the film. The action is set into motion because Sharon wants Jeff to actually do something on her birthday. She leaves him a note and five dollars to go pick up wood glue at the Home Depot and fix a broken slat on a door. Pat gets pulled in to force Jeff to actually follow through with something outside of the house. Jeff has other plans. He received a strange phone call asking for Kevin and now is convinced that somehow he must find and help Kevin that day.
The rest of the film is a madcap comedy of paranoia, throwing out stories about secret admirers, fidelity, and the nature of fate in the world. Each individual strand is fine. Taken together, they start to get a bit muddy.
Take Sharon's story. Sharon, frustrated that her younger son is wasting his life, just wants the simple home repair as a birthday gift. She knows she won't get anything else. When her frustration peaks, she receives an anonymous instant message on her work computer. The man claims to be her secret admirer who doesn't care that she's older or frustrated with her life.
Taken alone, Susan Sarandon makes what's essentially a one woman storyline (with an assist from a PC) quite compelling. Her reactions to the escalating office fling are hilarious and adorable. I would easily watch a whole movie about this character falling in love with the idea of falling in love.
Sharon's story is not the whole movie. It's only a fraction of what happens during the film. At the same time, Pat is in a fight with his wife (an excellent turn by Judy Greer) over the purchase of a Porsche ("surprise," he says, before she makes her true feelings known). Jeff follows a teenager with the name "Kevin" on his jersey while riding the bus. Pat finds Jeff wandering around a parking lot and starts fighting with him over his status in life. The stories only branch out further from there.
I understand where the Duplass Brothers are going. They want to make a sweet little story about doing the right thing and how the choices you make impact the direction your life will go in. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is quite successful at being sweet.
The problem is that this larger matrix they've built up exists only to make an emotional climax on its own terms feel more grand. It's a poor choice. By the time you get there, everything feels too calculated and twee to feel real or substantial. It's worse than a slapped on happy ending; it's a satisfying conclusion ruined by scale and scope.
Thoughts? I had a lot of fun watching Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but felt a little empty at the end. Sarandon is the MVP, but Segel has never been better. What about you? Share your thoughts below. I love to hear from you.