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By Don R. Lewis | March 17, 2012

One time I was at a film festival and my colleague and I stayed out so late the night before our flight, we missed the shuttle to the airport. Hungover and chagrin, we somehow found a way to convince the festival staff that we were the perfect people to return a rental vehicle to the airport and, thus, still make our flight. As we sped down the freeway we saw a traffic accident up ahead. Traffic slowed, siren lights flashed and as we got closer it turned out to be the very shuttle bus we were supposed to be on, lying on its side in a ditch besides the freeway. People meandered around alongside the road looking pissed, hurt and confused while my friend and I continued on our merry way to catch our flight without a moment to spare. Man, we were lucky.

Or if Jeff (Segal), the title character from the Duplass Brothers’ latest film “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” were there, he’d say it was all a sign that our destiny was upon us. We weren’t meant to be in that bus crash because something bigger was just on the horizon. See, Jeff is the kind of guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life so he spends his days alone in his mother’s basement watching M. Night Shyamalan’s movie “Signs” and waiting for the universe to tell him what to do. When we catch up with Jeff in the film it appears the universe would like him to stay home, take bong hits and watch TV. While his lonely mother Sharon (Sarandon) works a seemingly pointless job and his brother Pat (Helms) strives to climb the social ladder, Jeff vacillates while trying to decipher the symbols and signs in the world around him. One day the phone rings and it’s a wrong number but as Jeff sees it, “there are no wrong numbers” and for the first time in days, he’s out of the house trying to discover the true meaning of life and his role in it. Little does he know adventure and fate are just around the corner.

I’m an admittedly huge fan of Mark and Jay Duplass, the brother team behind “The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead” and their jump to the studio system, “Cyrus.” I like the low-fi shooting style and the way actors are kind of ad-libbing and doing improv while at the same time sticking close to a script idea the brothers have written or laid out. In most of the siblings’ films, characters are so damaged or pent up, they’re unable to share their feelings or say what exactly they want so every scene and exchange is charged with an undercurrent of psychological electricity.

What the characters say isn’t really what they “mean” or really “want” to say and the challenge or journey becomes one where the characters must achieve a goal that also ties into maturing and being honest with their feelings, even if those feelings might be bad or make someone upset. This nuanced ability to make extremely real characters, coupled with a laissez-faire approach, is a big part of why I like the Duplass Brothers but in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” I found the character area lacking. I’m not sure why but I felt the characters were labels rather than fleshed out people. Jeff is the stoner dreamer. Pat is the arrogant a*****e brother. Sharon is the lonely widow mother, frustrated by her kids. While these characters grew on me throughout the film, I felt they weren’t as well honed as previous Duplass Brothers characters have been.

The Duplass’ also have a shooting style that is typically hand-held (ie; shaky) and features the somewhat annoying use of a jarring rack-zoom where we see a character in a medium shot and then a bumbling, rapid zoom-in, typically to their face, occurs. While this technique isn’t new and it’s done on purpose, I don’t always get the point of its use. I’m sure the filmmakers have a reason for doing this but I don’t feel it always works and has become a crutch or a signature that I often wish would go away. To be honest, I often feel like they’re using it incorrectly. Still, I love the Duplass Brothers’ films but there are certain nagging qualities that get under my skin. No one’s perfect!

So yes, the typical Duplass Brothers “auteurism” is all over “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” but gone is the solid character development that is also so key in their other films. Whereas I felt I “got” many of the characters (particularly the protagonists) in the other Duplass films, here they felt symbolic and rather shallow instead of imbued with conflict and deep-seated issues. Thus as the film got underway, I found myself not particularly engaged and wondering if I had finally come to a crossroads with two filmmakers who started out as scruffy, affable indie dudes who had somehow infiltrated the studio system. Had they jumped the shark and become content to dress-down big name stars and make them really act in chatty, gritty comedy-dramas? But then I realized what I was seeing in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” wasn’t a step back at all but really a solid step forward in story and structure. While I still stand by my feeling that the film lacked in character development, it totally makes up for it in clever screenwriting and structure.

It would be a real dick move to spoil the plot of this film because unlike other Duplass Brothers films, the plot is the key, not just the characters and their psychological journey. The interactions between them are still crucial but for the first time in a Duplass Brothers film, the plot serves the character, not the other way around. Look at their other, early films. “The Puffy Chair” is, on it’s face, about a couple driving a birthday gift cross-country. But the chair and the gift are really just an excuse to stick two people and their shabby relationship in a car for a few days to create tension and drama. A basic plotline for “Baghead” could be described as a group of friends who go to the woods to shoot a film before being terrorized but really, the film is about male insecurity and gender relations. The woods and the dude with the bag on his head add frosting to the mental baked goods beneath the surface. Yet “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is a real step forward as the plot is well-designed and fairly brilliant. Once I realized this and let go of preconceived notions, the film really grew on me.

This is really great screenwriting and, for some reason I’m still unable to put my finger on, it reminded me of early Billy Wilder. No, Jay and Mark Duplass are not the new Billy Wilder, but there’s something “Wilder-esque” about this film. But like a band who has replaced some older members and is getting back in the studio for the first time, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is a change for the better, but it’s so new it’s not quite there yet. I felt the film dragged at times and with characters I didn’t really love, the personal journey was somewhat lessened. But even those issues weren’t enough to put me off this film completely. It’s smart, touching and really well acted.

Jason Segal and Ed Helms, as polar opposite brothers thrown together and forced into an adventure, play really well off one another and Segal continues to be the screen embodiment of the guy you want to hang out with. Helms actually stretches a bit for once as he’s the less likable male lead in the film and whereas I thought I’d be o.k. never seeing him in a movie again for awhile, he’s quite good here. While Sarandon doesn’t have much to do I liked the mellower, more laid-back performance. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen her in a film and her performance reminded me just how terrific a screen presence she can be. Judy Greer as Pat’s wife Linda also provides some spark and once again makes you wonder why she’s not a bigger star. Once again the Duplass Brothers have thrown together a star-studded cast and used them extremely well.

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is a very good movie that does take a while to get going. Once it does there’s comedy, adventure, intrigue, life lessons and some goofy stoner fables that spice up the proceedings but it’s a bit of a slow boil. But trust me, stick with this film if you decide to take the leap. The payoff is unexpected and lasts with you long after the film ends.

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