September 16, 2011


The Duplass Brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens on a terrific note by bashing the silliness of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.  Unfortunately, that’s about as hilarious and insightful as Jeff gets.  While the lead performances are solid and there are some funny jokes along the way, the film is saddled with a weak sub-plot and an even weaker subtext.  Jeff, Who Lives at Home ends up revering what it originally mocked.

In the opening scene, Jeff (Jason Segel) records a voice memo to himself where he talks about the greatness of Signs.  Mark and Jay Duplass are clearly poking fun Shyamalan’s contrived thriller and how everything comes together, but the brothers aren’t making fun of Jeff.  Jeff wants to believe everything is connected and that following “signs” will lead him out of his mother’s basement and into a better life.  His cynical and estranged brother Pat (Ed Helms) isn’t doing much better.  Pat ignores the wishes and common sense of his wife Linda (Judy Greer) and buys a Porsche.  Unsurprisingly, she’s less-than-pleased.  Following a wrong-number call and someone asking for “Kevin”, Jeff begins a journey through the city that keeps bringing him to Pat and the two begin to mend their broken relationship while Pat tries to find out if Linda is cheating on him.  Meanwhile, their mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) discovers she has a secret admirer at work.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is where shitty, coincidental screenwriting tries to get a pass by making coincidence the point of its story.  What’s bizarre about Jeff is that it starts out poking fun at the concept.  It’s funny and a little sad that Jeff thinks he’ll find something he doesn’t know he’s looking for if he just follows the name “Kevin” and helps out his brother.  The Duplass Brothers’ had an opportunity to dismantle the notion of coincidence and still come to the emotional resolution they’re aiming for.  Jeff and Pat could come together without the unbelievable coincidences that lazily move the characters from A to B to C.  If the film implied that Jeff is subconsciously looking for particular signs rather than traveling via Kevins, it would show us what really drives the character rather than a ridiculous belief in an orderly universe that’s looking out for him.

jeff-who-lives-at-home-image Jason Segel

I think coincidence is a security blanket against a chaotic and unpredictable world.  Notions of fate and destiny provide the comfort that things are as they’re supposed to be (whatever that means) and if we just let go and listen to the universe, something wonderful will happen (the universe rarely tells anyone, “You’re doomed.  Thanks for listening.”).  Others may believe in that, but I’m more interested in why people choose to believe in coincidence and the beginning of the movie, it looks like the Duplasses are interested in that too.  But the arc of the film isn’t about questioning Jeff’s beliefs, but proving that he’s right to hold them.

The only differences between 360 and Jeff, Who Lives at Home is that Jeff is funnier, shorter, and features less characters, although it’s still one character and plotline too heavy.  Sharon’s story adds almost nothing to the movie.  It’s deadweight on the narrative, and thematically it’s redundant because the lesson of her narrative is to listen to mysterious messages and open your heart to them.  Sharon barely interacts with Jeff and Pat throughout the film other than telling them what to do and sweetening up the family reconciliation drama.

Jeff‘s brief runtime, the sporadic humor, and Segel’s performances keep the film afloat.  Although I thought Jeff’s beliefs were silly, I felt no animosity towards him because Segel gives such an unassuming performance.  Jeff is kind and caring and he doesn’t push his beliefs on anyone.  He goes so far as to preemptively defending his faith in the universe by telling Pat, “You’re going to laugh at me.”  I wanted to laugh with Jeff, Who Lives at Home but unfortunately the silly concept it initially derides is what the film ultimately celebrates.

Rating: C

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far:

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