Strong acting drives stoner/family comedy.

| March 22, 2012
Jason Segal and Ed Helms
Jason Segal and Ed Helms

Jeff Who Lives At Home, the latest zoom-crazy, handheld-camera mini-epic from writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass, isn't very funny. But that's fine. Even though it's billed as a comedy, the film could be more aptly described as a non-tragedy or a classical Greek comedy about a laughable person whose blunders seldom cause real pain. Whatever it's supposed to be, Jeff Who Lives at Home is a brisk, well-executed, and deeply satisfying follow-up to the Duplass brothers' 2010's man-child psychodrama Cyrus.

Jason Segel plays Jeff, an unemployed 30-year-old whose life has been put on hold. Jeff is a genteel stoner and obsessive rewatcher of M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 film Signs who believes fervently that everything happens for a reason. Because of this belief, Jeff is particularly — maybe unnaturally — alive to life's chance encounters and coincidences in a way that the rest of the film's characters aren't. And part of the film is about Jeff's attempts to impart this cockeyed sense of synchronicity to the other members of his family, particularly his thoughtless, boorish brother Pat (Ed Helms).

I've never thought much of Helms' priggish on-screen persona until now, but his performance as Pat is a bitter treat. Pat's narcissism and loathsomeness is immediately convincing and immediately repellent; this is the kind of guy who's never laughed at anyone's jokes but his own.

The actresses in the film are also particularly fine. As Pat's wife, Linda, Judy Greer keeps her head down for much of the film until she cuts loose with a speech about marital frustration that's simultaneously honest, passionate, and futile.

Susan Sarandon, who plays Jeff's mom Sharon, may be the best performer in the film. As a defeated mom who's given a second chance at life, Sarandon's eyes and body language show how even the slight possibility of romance transforms people of any age. Sarandon's submission to an unorthodox, potentially dangerous declaration of love while sitting in a cubicle while the sprinkler systems drench her is the film's romantic high point.

While it's true that this aimless story does end with an almost unnatural tidiness, Jeff Who Lives at Home both earns its happy ending and shows most of these struggling characters at or near their best.

If the story and performances are so winning, though, then why, thanks to the Duplass brothers' constant zooms and reframings, does the film still look and feel needlessly jumpy and unsettled? These zooms happen in every Duplass film, and I have no idea what they mean. There are some compelling theories: Critic Chris Fujiwara has claimed that these zooms are about "a psychologized, relational space that opens up or shuts down" and "provoke a sense of intimacy and tension, of nervousness and isolation," while The New York Times' A.O. Scott thinks the zooms function like an eye-rolling or eye-raising spectator. Still other critics maintain that, no matter why it's done, it looks really stupid.

On the other hand, I wasn't bothered by the zooms very much this time. And maybe that's their point: A zoom should not mean but be.

Jeff Who Lives at Home
Now playing
Studio on the Square

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