With their fourth film, Mark and Jay Duplass (Cyrus) achieve the seemingly impossible. Against all odds, they’ve somehow managed to make a comedy that harnesses the considerable talents of Jason Segel and Ed Helms but never quite gets around to being funny.
Segel at first appears to play a variation on the character which helped establish his reputation in Knocked Up-a doofus slacker in a long term relationship with his bong. But then things take a turn for the cosmic. Or, possibly, the clinical.
Jeff is thirty, lives in the basement of his mother’s (Susan Sarandon) home and has watched his copy of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs so many times he’s become obsessed with the idea that everything in the universe is connected. He believes destiny has a grand plan for him and that it’s his duty to put everything else aside and be constantly on the look out for clues as to the shape that fate will take.
In spite of the fact that he gets life lessons from Mel Gibson, Jeff seems harmless enough. Not a particularly original or entertaining creation but a harmless enough, vaguely likable manchild. When he answers the phone one day and a voice asks to speak with Kevin, we aren’t surprised that such a small thing could launch him on an existential quest (“What if there are no wrong numbers?”), just that it would ultimately cover such familiar ground.
While their principal character may have Signs on the brain, the fraternal filmmakers-who also wrote the script-give the impression of having watched 2008’s Step Brothers a few too many times. Like the mother in that movie, Sarandon’s Sharon is defined by two qualities: She’s looking for love and growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of ambition displayed by her resident Peter Pan.
Like both of its middle-aged boys, Jeff is oblivious to the ridiculousness of his situation. He feels entitled rather than grateful. When his mother calls from her cubicle and pleads with him to repair a single slat in a kitchen shutter as a birthday gift to her, he whines, “Mom, I’m kind of busy here!”
And, just as there was in Step Brothers, there is a more successful older sibling who additionally happens to be a dick. Helms is squandered in the ill-conceived role of Pat, a paint salesman who improbably purchases a Porsche with the money he and his wife (Judy Greer) have saved for a house and then is mystified to learn that his marriage may be on the rocks.
I don’t mean to suggest the filmmakers have borrowed all the themes and ideas in Jeff, Who Lives at Home from Step Brothers. They borrow from lots of other slacker movies too. And I don’t mean to suggest that their latest is absolutely entertainment-free.
As Jeff spends a day following the trail of Kevin-related signs, coincidences and clues from one end of his home town to the other, certain aspects of his adventure did make me smile. I don’t believe I laughed once but I probably smiled half a dozen times-for example, when Segel shoehorns his oversized frame into the front seat of the sports car. “You’re a Sasquatch,” marvels Helms. The sight rates a smile.
The final act is another matter. The tone lurches from mumblecore to magic realism without warning as events take a turn for the supernatural that’s certain to divide viewers. Some will find it inspirational. Others will reject it as shamelessly contrived. Count me with the latter. Segel turns in a finely calibrated performance, it’s briefly interesting to watch Helms play slightly against type and Sarandon brings an aching quality to her underwritten role. One or two of the plot’s developments contain trace amounts of invention but, at the end of the day, I have to say I found myself wishing Jeff had just stayed home.