AFI FEST Review: Duplass Brothers Knock It Out of the Park with ‘Jeff, Who Lives at Home’

By  · Published on November 10th, 2011

The title of Jay and Mark Duplass’ latest film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, may imply that the film will center primarily on leading loser Jeff, well, living at home. When we first meet Jeff (Jason Segel), he’s smoking weed in his mother’s basement, but though that setting (and that particular action) would, at first puff, seem to lay the stage for what the rest of the film portrays, Jeff gets out of the house and out in the world pretty swiftly. Jeff, Who Lives at Home may ostensibly focus on Jeff’s journey to a greater understanding of himself and the world he lives in (and, yes, that journey comes with much less weed-smoking than one would expect), the Duplass brothers have actually crafted a charming film that is, at its heart, about the influence of everyday magic in the lives of an off-kilter family.

The Duplass men have long been concerned with issues of family and disaffection, and finding humor in the tragedy that is inherent (and sometimes inherited) in both. The Puffy Chair and Cyrus both have plots that center on daddy issues, to some extent, and Jeff, Who Lives at Home is no different. Segel’s Jeff is a thirtyish slacker who is unable to complete even the most mundane of tasks (early on in the film, his mother asks him to simply procure some wood glue and fix a broken shutter). He lives at home with said mother Sharon (played amusingly by Susan Sarandon, complete with her own subplot that hinges on mystery of the ordinary), and appears to be without a job, a social life, or a purpose. But Jeff is concerned with the big things, with the great things, and with finding his destiny. When we later learn that Sharon gives Jeff a pass because of a “difficult adolescence” that stems from the loss of his father, it’s no surprise. But Jeff’s full affection for his father, and the sense that his mother and older brother Pat (an out-of-the-box Ed Helms) are both unable and unwilling to fill the hole he’s left in Jeff’s life, is gently revealed throughout the course of the film.

Jeff’s weird belief in fate and destiny is tested when he receives a mysterious phone call from a stranger, a stranger who demands to speak to a “Kevin” that most certainly doesn’t live with Jeff and Sharon. Thanks to both marijuana-induced boredom and paranoia, Jeff starts noticing “Kevins” everywhere and, with wood glue-based projects wholly unable to stick in his brain, he starts following them. Imagine his surprise when they lead him to big brother Pat and his own mess of problems.

Pat and Jeff are not the best of friends, and Pat’s weird fixation on material things that don’t interest Jeff (he’s just this very morning shown his brand-new, totally unaffordable Porsche to put-out wife Linda) don’t help matters. But Pat’s weird fixation on material things really just masks some serious insecurities, and those are not helped at all when he and Jeff stumble upon Linda (played by the continually indispensable Judy Greer) in what appears to be the throes of an extramarital affair. It will likely surprise that these wacky characters and this wacky scenario, all cooked up and thrown together by the Duplass brothers, ultimately come together in a film that’s made up of equal parts coincidence, timing, whimsy, and even something close to magic.

In a post-screening Q&A, Mark Duplass explained that Jeff is a hero to both the Duplass brothers, the sort of guy who could “find grand mystery in a package of donuts.” To that end, the brothers Duplass have written Jeff with a clear affection, which is well-translated on the screen with a Segel-standard lovable doofus performance. But Segel’s turn as Jeff slowly builds, leading to some scenes that have an unexpected gravity. Jeff’s lazy pothead routine may sound like old hat, but as we come to know Jeff better, it’s made obvious that he’s got a lot more going on in his head (and heart) than previously suspected.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is by far the most accessible of the Duplass’ brothers’ films, helped along by a recognizably comedic cast that all turn in surprisingly subtle performances laced with unexpected drama and darkness (notably, both Segel and Helms). The film has the same off-the-cuff improvised humor and documentary-style camera we’ve come to expect from Duplass productions, but it’s also packed with a contagious sense of wonder and joy that’s never cloying or silly, but simply delightful to watch.

The Upside: A charming, spirited film that’s a big step for the Duplass brothers, Jason Segel, and Ed Helms. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is an unexpected gem about how to turn disaffection into affection, complete with weed jokes, hijinks, and Ed Helms with a bad goatee.

The Downside: Viewers expecting a stoner comedy will be a little disappointed, and audiences who hate joy and whimsy will be straight-up displeased.

On the Side: Judy Greer is my pick to host the Oscars.