Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

It's Arrested Development

Jeff shoulda stayed at home. (Paramount Pictures)
I don't know exactly why, but I remain enamoured by the films of Jay and Mark Duplass. From The Puffy Chair & Baghead through to their slightly more mainstream breakthrough Cyrus, they will never be accused of re-inventing the wheel. But they've made three charming, offbeat and honest comedy-dramas, all of which have a real affection for their characters and are almost completely devoid of pretension. As an actor, Mark has also popped up in a number of small-scale but interesting projects - including Greenberg, Your Sister's Sister and Humpday. For me, their involvement with a project tends to be a relatively encouraging sign.

Their latest, however, was a film I truly struggled to warm to. Jeff, Who Lives at Home still has the recognisable fingerprints of 'A Duplass Brothers film', but struggles to justify its existence. Our protagonist Jeff (Jason Segal) is a likeable procrastinator stuck in a sort of arrested adolescent - he lives in his mother's basement, and spends the days getting stoned and waxing lyrical about the philosophical implications of the film Signs (while sitting on the toilet, of course). It's the insight gained through a particularly spiritual re-watch of Shyamalan's opus that leads him to believe he's meant to search for his higher purpose. After a number of coincidences concerning the name 'Kevin' (namely a wrong number), Jeff leaves the basement and takes the bus out into the big bad world. More signs follow him down the path of Kevin. He coincidentally (this is a film of purposeful dramatic contrivances) bumps into his brother Pat (Ed Helms), who's recent Porsche purchase has put him in the bad books with wife Linda (Judy Greer). When they (coincidentally) spot Linda with another man, they decide to pursue her. A series of unfortunate events follow. Meanwhile, their mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) is at work and has a secret admirer. The scene is set for fate to have its wicked way and pull all the characters together. Just like in Signs.

For the first act, Jeff... is a relatively amiable production. There's fun to be had watching the silly / moderately amusing situations play out, and the various characters awkwardly interacting. It's light, but charming - very much what one would expect from the Duplasses. The performances are all well handled - despite the flaws of everyone involved (especially Pat, who is a frustrating fellow), you still kind of root for them. It's slight, but the laughs are well-earned and the characters are treated with affection.

A very Duplass film, then, for its opening half. The film then shifts into a dramatic gear - which, again, is no big surprise for fans of The Puffy Chair or Cyrus. There are a few emotional moments scattered throughout, but the big disappointment here is that the brothers overindulge in sentimentality. The thematic focus - right there in the opening toilet monologue about Signs - is too narrow, and the payoffs too forced and predictable. The running themes of coincidence and fate feel under-cooked, and the contrived plot is too limited in ambition (especially Sarandon's strand). A ghastly soundtrack by Michael Andrews is far too cutesy, and only lessens dramatic and emotional impact of the characters' eventual destinations. Most bizarrely of all - and this is true of the opening half, too - is a distracting fondness for sudden small camera zooms. Now, apparently this is a visual 'trait' of Mark & Jay, but I'll be honest: I never noticed it enough to become distracting in their previous films. Here, despite it being used effectively once or twice to deliver a punchline or moment of inner realisation, it much more often pulls you out of the movie. It's very strange, and very distracting.

It's not that Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a hateable film. It has enough charming elements to keep you more-or-less engaged. And its narrow focus is a criticism that could be leveled at their earlier films too. But the rewards in Jeff... are fewer, and the crowd-pleasing sentimentality is too overwrought. Cyrus was a much more effective attempt at marrying the acute observational drama and genre awareness of Puffy Chair and Baghead with the commercial and artistic demands of their high-profile actors and increased budget. Jeff..., however, ultimately feels too limited in its scope to achieve anything other than very minor insight and some early laughs. Jeff... may just be the first Duplass Brothers film I didn't like all that much.       

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