There are few surprises in Jeff, Who Lives at Home. It’s a picture with a title that explains the fundamental problem at hand, and proceeds in a fairly straightforward fashion. Jeff (Jason Segal) is a spiritual stoner who lives in his mother’s (Susan Sarandon) basement. His perspective emphasizes the importance of interconnectedness within the universe – there are no wrong numbers; everything happens for a reason. His appreciation for the film Signs only adds a whimsical worldview. Of course, this ideology is met with skepticism by his older brother, Pat (Ed Helms). Pat’s going through his own crisis though, as his selfishness is costing him his marriage.
The Duplass brothers made 2010’s Cyrus, which I thoroughly enjoyed for its strong ensemble acting and astute writing. With Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the precision acting returns, as Segal, Helms, Sarandon and Judy Greer as Helms’ wife all maneuver through the emotional messiness with deft skill. It’s a strong group that serves as the standout aspect of the film. It’s the brothers’ writing that takes a backseat in this endeavor though. It largely stems from their titular character’s misguided reliance on coincidence, which forces the narrative to strain itself in its contrivance. Relying on coincidence as a narrative device is the butt of a few jokes (particularly in a scene where Jeff and Pat reunite after a spat), but doing that becomes problematic, as the picture relies on coincidence for a key revelatory scene.
Despite some flaws in its narrative direction, the picture balances its comedic and dramatic elements effectively. And the brothers have a great sense of place, particularly in an early scene where Jeff follows a young man he sees on the bus. In passing we see the commercialized suburban landscape that he inhabits. It’s the sort of scene that recalls Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, though the tone of these early sequences has a certain melancholic feel. With that in mind, most of Jeff, Who Lives at Home tiptoes along the lines of melancholic and whimsical. Despite Jeff’s oafish behavior, the picture is very much grounded in a disappointing reality, as people simply live to get by. A critical argument between Pat and his wife involves the singular upscale restaurant in the neighborhood – it’s as if that restaurant serves as people’s escape in a landscape of disappointment. These sort of tiny observations are the little things that make the Jeff, Who Lives at Home more than its parts.