Fixer Uppers

''Jeff'' accomplishes something few others reliably can -- it entertains without patronizing or ostracizing its audience

Jeff, Who Lives At Home is a funny sort of movie. Not funny ha-ha, as its trailer so deceptively suggests, but funny like a warm smile. It’s odd and familiar, earnest but not cloying, and absolutely branded with the sensibilities of its filmmakers, Mark and Jay Duplass. It’s a hearty chuckle, not a guffaw.

You wouldn’t expect that, though, by the looks of the cast. From Jason Segel to Ed Helms to Judy Greer, Jeff would seem to be the formula for brilliant screwball comedy. Instead, it occupies that strange, small place within the genre that’s equal parts sincerity, discomfort, and endearing self-awareness.

Jeff Who Lives at Home

Jeff Who Lives at Home

Segel plays the titular homebody, a man child who lounges on a couch in his mother’s basement, getting high and recording philosophical thoughts about M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. (”It just keeps getting better every time I watch,” he deadpans while squatting on the toilet.) As per that fandom, Jeff believes in destiny, so when he gets an irate call from a stranger looking for a man named Kevin, he interprets it as – what else? — a sign. Find Kevin, and he’ll find his purpose. Of course, fate alone doesn’t jostle him out of the house and into the Baton Rouge blight. That job falls to his mother (Susan Sarandon), who badgers him to buy some wood glue to fix a shutter in the kitchen for her birthday.

Along the way to the hardware store, Jeff sees ”Kevin.” He follows him, and after unfortunate naivety costs him his wallet, he stumbles across Pat (Helms), his status-seeking paint salesman of a brother, who’s psyched to show off his new Porsche Boxster. That validation-on-wheels, though, was the last straw for his neglected wife (Greer), who Jeff and Pat spot out to lunch with another man. They investigate, and like so, Jeff, Who Lives At Home‘s narrative rattles onward, pulling karmic strings to guide Jeff’s family on the path to their destiny.

While that seems like heady stuff for a slacker comedy, it’s nothing new for the Duplass brothers, who’ve consistently paired unexpected storytelling devices in their previous work. The Puffy Chair, an indie darling from 2005, was a road-trip movie that chronicled the collapse of a stagnant relationship. In Cyrus, they turned a romantic comedy premise on its head by giving the female lead a grown, live-in son. (Not unlike Jeff, as it were, if his spaced-out values were replaced by passive-aggressive sadism.)

Jeff is, in ways, both a departure from and continuance of that style. It’s framed within traditional conventions, but carries the naturalistic style that’s immediately recognizable to anybody who’s seen a movie by Mark and Jay Duplass. It’s got big-name comic actors, but weighs them down with characters unmoored by ordinary, boring lives. (Which they handle magnificently, I should add.) When given the chance to play up big laughs, Jeff turns heel to remind you that its characters are fundamentally sad people. Not broken, but in need of fixing.

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME
starstarstar
Starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon
Rated R
83 Minutes
Opens Friday
Area Theaters

What’s surprising, though, is that the Duplass brothers’ marriage with Hollywood somehow enhances what they already do so well. Without irregular camerawork, lighting and production – essentially, stripping away the affectations of low-budget indie fare – Jeff is no less sincere or intimate than The Puffy Chair. Like Cyrus, it just so happens to do so with recognizable faces and a bit more financial wiggle room. Selling out, as some have foolishly claimed, is a welcome creative development for these filmmakers.

That’s not to say Jeff is great, of course. It’s flat at times, and of a sensibility that’s like nails on a chalkboard to the more cynical among us. Yet, it still accomplishes something that few others reliably can – it entertains without patronizing or ostracizing its audience. And that, above all else, is what moviegoers should expect.