“Jeff Who Lives at Home” — makes a mother proud [MOVIE REVIEW]
“Jeff Who Lives at Home” explores the misguided hopes and dreams of a family stalled in the slow lane. Jeff (Jason Segel), thirty years old, still living in the basement of his widowed mother’s home, spends his days watching the mediocre Mel Gibson movie “Signs” and smoking pot. Convinced that everything in the world is related by some sort of Karma, Jeff spends his time waiting for his own “signs.” Jeff’s mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon), stuck in a work cubicle doing some unnamed but mind numbing work, has reduced her maternal expectations and wants nothing more for her birthday than for Jeff to follow a simple four part command: take the money she’s left on the table, take the bus to the Home Depot, buy wood glue and fix the broken shutter on her dining room door. Jeff’s brother Pat (Ed Helms), allegedly the successful one in the family, is an insensitive jerk who bullies his wife and spends his afternoons at Hooters entertaining clients and coworkers from the paint store that employs him.
This particular day, Sharon’s birthday, has other things in store for the three of them, when Jeff, on his way to the Home Depot, receives what he believes is a sign from the Cosmos and interrupts his trip in order to follow it. The consequences for his lonely mother and his jerk of a brother end up being upending.
If only the resultant film had been as interesting as the synopsis. The Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, who wrote and directed the film, don’t take the time necessary to make any of the characters believable or complex. Focusing on Jason Segel’s expressively soft and doleful face certainly sets up both our sympathy for his “little boy lost” and our laughing revulsion for his stoner behavior and philosophy. Segel, in the film’s most effective performance, encircles us in his confusion and search for meaning. It is not, however, enough for us to hop on his train and follow him blindly through forced coincidence and ineffective faux-Zen philosophy. Sarandon has given very little to do with her character and it is impossible to envision her as the cubicle drone who allows one son to sit at home and smoke pot all day without parental intervention, guidance or consequence. When there is no character on the page, it is nigh unto impossible to create one on screen. We are given no grounds on which to base some of her spontaneous actions, actions that end up dovetailing incomprehensibly with the actions of her children on this fateful day.
And finally there’s poor Ed Helms. I say poor only because he was given the role of villain without a loaded gun. So effective playing the hapless sympathetic sap in “The Hangover” and “Cedar Falls,” here he called upon to be a complete jerk who must transform instantaneously into an understanding repentant human being. It’s not that Helms would be incapable of playing that guy, it’s just we really don’t know who that guy is other than it wouldn’t be out of character for him to drown kittens in a well.
Don’t get me wrong. There are laughs throughout the film, with Jason Segel as the driving force (although given the nature of his character, drive might be too strong a word). The Duplass brothers would have been better off focusing more on the characters so that we would have cared more about the journey. Overall the film suffers from the same thing that Jeff does – arrested development. Or, to quote Woody Allen, who could have been describing “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Right now it’s only a notion, but I think I can get the money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea.”
Opening March 17 at the ArcLight Beach Cities, AMC Rolling Hills 20, and AMC Del Amo 18
Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at http://www.nomeanerplace.com.