Jeff, Who Lives at Home
With their latest film "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," directors Jay and Mark Duplass have proven what I long suspected, that they are the laziest good filmmakers working today. Much like their previous movie "Cyrus," "Jeff" is defined by a number of divergent characteristics: it’s perfectly acted but horribly composed, it’s stunningly honest but lightweight in every way, it’s momentarily moving and then entirely forgettable. It’s a high-quality story told with low-quality tools, and it’s hard not to notice.
And while that’s a step up from their previous films (works like "The Puffy Chair," which helped defined the mumblecore aesthetic of sloppy handheld camerawork/autobiographical narratives), they still have a way to go if they want to move into the realms of Hollywood comedy. I think that would be a good step for them if the finer points of "Jeff" are any indication. This collaboration (with stars like Jason Segel, who plays the titular man-child; Ed Helms as his brother; and Susan Sarandon as his mother) has its most likable characters to date.
These actors fall perfectly into the faux-sitcom feeling of the Duplass’ films - I describe it that way because, despite the home-video style of the photography, the characters are all heightened archetypes throwing around punch lines; the character development and the dialogue feel as though they’re ripped directly from cheesy television - and have made "Jeff" an honestly endearing experience. That’s a true evolution for Jay and Mark, since the best I could say about something like "Cyrus" is that it’s simply well-acted.
Following the titular Jeff, who lives his life by a moral code derived from the subtext of the film "Signs" (everything is connected; every action ends in a reaction), the Duplass brothers structure their film over the course of a single day, with Jeff’s seemingly harmless trip to the store leading to a number of divergences, subplots, run-ins, and other adventures that eventually lead to (shock of shocks) his finding his "place in the world."
Such a predictable narrative works because Segel plays the role with such a likeable nature, with such earnest abandon ("I like weed," he deadpans at one point with an incredibly straight face) that you can’t help but fall in love with him and his deranged worldview (he’s so obsessed with the idea of things being interconnected or synchronized that he allows every possible ’sign’ to dictate his next actions.) By the time the Duplasses pay off all of his silliness and clumsiness with a moment of honest transcendence; it’s hard not to get choked up.
"Jeff" is at its best when it’s exploring his point-of-view: an opening sequence, with him literally intimidated by the possible cosmic insinuations made by infomercials and wrong numbers, is absolutely brilliant and plays off of the ’everything means something’ philosophy with magnificence. Unfortunately, not only does the film not continue to focus on such "coincidences," it also doesn’t bother to stay with Jeff for the whole day. A completely unnecessary subplot, included only to warm more hearts, involves Susan Sarandon getting flirtatious with a secret office admirer - who ends up being another woman.
The film never bothers to clarify her feelings nor does it offer an honest resolution to the subplot; it simply offers a pat "accept people for who they are message." It teases at a message of tolerance without ever pulling the trigger. One could call it malice; I call it laziness.
And as if that laziness wasn’t apparent enough already, there’s one major reason they couldn’t snip out the completely superfluous Sarandon subplot of her "love affair": the film wouldn’t even be feature length without it. As it is, the movie cuts to the credits after an underdeveloped 77 minutes (the official runtime with credits is a few notches over 80) and without the faux-gay subplot it would run less than an hour.
The Duplass brothers never bother to pad out their story, nor expand upon their findings: characters come in-and-out, never to be heard of again - they are digressions more than they are elements of the narrative. The Duplasses are interested in character, not plot; but their characters are hardly intricate enough to carry films on their own - Jeff is a concept more than he is a real person, his worldview never challenged enough to provide amble complexity from the role.
And thanks mainly to this underdeveloped script, the film feels like more of a fun distraction than a powerful statement. The Duplasses throw everything into the narrative: adultery, betrayal, even car chases. But it’s all just "killing time" until they can have their "big uplifting moment" where they glorify Jeff. None of the plot actually matters in regard to where we leave our main character.
They pay off the ’everything is connected’ concept in the laziest way possible; by simply allowing the events of the film to leave Jeff in the "right place at the right time." The idea behind "Lives at Home" is great, and it succeeds magnificently in the opening few minutes. I just wish they could have kept that level of invention and creativity continuing up to their climactic moment of grace. If so, this may have been something truly special.