New on DVD: Jeff Who Lives at Home (2011)

Jeff (Jason Segel) is a thirtysomething slacker who lives in his mom’s basement and obsesses over the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs.

You know ... that’s the one where Mel Gibson’s family is besieged in their farmhouse by space aliens? And they discover that little, inconsequential things they almost overlooked were in fact cosmic signs of how to beat the invasion?

Jeff acknowledges that Signs can seem meandering and unfocused, but now that he’s watched it a couple dozen times he finds tremendous comfort knowing that in the end it comes together in “one perfect moment.”

Jeff’s opening monologue in Jeff Who Lives at Home seems a mere toss-off, the idiotic ramblings of a navel-gazing stoner who hasn’t had a girlfriend since high school.

But remember Jeff’s words. They’ll come back to us in yet another perfect moment.

Jeff Who Lives at Home is a pleasantly meandering effort from the writing/directing Duplass Brothers. It’s funny and goofy.

It also exhibits more genuine soul than any comedy since...well, since Bill Forsythe’s sublime Local Hero back in 1983.

Unfolding over one long, peripatetic day, Jeff... follows the titular character as he wanders across Baton Rouge. Initially he is dispatched by his fed-up mother (Susan Sarandon) to go to a hardware store for wood glue with which to fix a closet door.

But Jeff is too keyed in to the cosmic signs around him to stay focused on so mundane a task. A wrong number phone call from an angry man seeking “Kevin” has him perplexed.

Sure enough, on the bus to the hardware store he sees a kid with an athletic jersey emblazoned with the name Kevin. This leads to a game of pick-up basketball. And a mugging.

Meanwhile, Jeff’s older brother Pat (Ed Helms) is having a bad day. His wife Linda (Judy Greer) has finally had it with Pat’s selfish ways. News that he has purchased a Porsche (because he deserves it ... and it’s a good investment ... never mind that he’s a paint salesman) pretty much convinces her to look for greener pastures.

In its gently wandering way, Jeff Who Lives at Home finds the two brothers meeting (coincidentally ... or is there a divine hand at work here?) and teaming up as bumbling amateur sleuths to follow Linda to determine if she’s having an affair with a coworker.

While her two boys are careening around town like pinballs, mother Sharon sits in her office cubicle and tries to process the messages from a secret admirer that keep popping up on her email. Sharon’s no dummy. She knows it might be a cruel joke or the efforts of a creepy stalker.

But at the same time she’s desperate for a little human connection. As her office buddy Carol (Rae Dawn Chong) observes, it’s high time Sharon got her pipes cleaned.

The screenplay keeps us guessing until all the characters find themselves on a causeway in the middle of a traffic jam, at which point all the signs we’ve been overlooking make themselves felt.

Jeff... is the most emotionally accessible and outright funny film by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus), whose off kilter, low-budget style has been dubbed “Mumblecore.” Perhaps that’s because the siblings force us to really pay attention to the characters. Half the movie is shot in very tight closeups, which force us to take in every little emotion playing across the actors’ faces.

Of course, it helps that we have some pretty good actors here.

Segel and Helms are blessed with characters that slowly grow on us. Initially Jeff comes off as a big dumb oaf, but gradually we see him as a big-hearted innocent.

Helms has an even tougher job. His Pat strikes us as an arrogant idiot, a character so egregious it’s a small miracle that by film’s end we view him with a degree of respect.

Greer has made a specialty of playing geeky/sexy women saddled with jerks; I’m glad she got to play Linda before moving on to something else. And Sarandon covers her sexuality (yeah, she’s still got it) beneath layers of hurt, loneliness and defensiveness.

Throughout the Duplasses maintain a playful attitude — one emphasized by the quietly percussive musical score — as they move ever closer to the big reveal.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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