Monday, March 19, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)


The Duplass brothers are crazy busy bros. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is their fourth feature since 2005, and one of two coming out this year (movie #5, The Do-Deca-Pentathon, lacks anyone famous, though, and will most likely be difficult to find outside NY/LA). One of the Duplasses (Mark) also stars as an actor on FX's The League, which of course was concocted by the guy who made EuroTrip (a 2004 "teen adventure comedy," that I actually saw for some reason). I only bring this up because said knowledge will always cloud how I view Duplass bros. projects. Not that this is a bad thing: that these movies are so tender and decidedly un-League like is intriguing and refreshing. That they're also funny is an added bonus.

Ed Helms and the titular Jason Segal (Jeff, who lives at home) are brothers. I have enjoyed the work of these actors pretty much across the board, and their performances here are both typically good. Segal is basically playing a more forlorn, more hippie version of the self he fully cultivated in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, while Helms is trying his damnedest to break free of the semi-pathetic bozo boss his Andy on NBC's The Office has morphed into. Not that his character of Jeff's older brother Pat isn't a pathetic bozo--he is--just a different sort: replace the spaz-prone preppy whimsy with happy hour goateed rage. For the most part, he transitions smoothly in this role; his departure from Andy/Ed Helms hasn't been as natural as Michael/Steve Carrell in his movie roles, but if this rendition is part of a process, I think there's a lot to look forward to. (And without delving completely into an Office diversion, a lot of Helms' difficulties in breaking free might have something to do with the fact that his Andy has so dramatically changed in ~5 full seasons.)

This movie has an excellent title. Besides its obvious simplicity and accuracy, its perfect because you immediately know what it's really getting at. It conjures a very specific, very modern, very American reality: that Jeff is a loser who lives with his parent(s) (in this case, single ma Susan Sarandon). But if you think about it, this is a fucked mindset we all share. Where else would one live BUT "home?" That we assume this person is some kind of derelict--not a 'real' adult--perhaps with multiple mental health issues, and that we infer all this from a five-word statement, says plenty if not more about the rest of us than it does about the Jeffs of the world. Where and what is "home" when it has such negatives implications as the place you go back to when you've failed? Well, we get to see what a 'legitimate' home really looks like, via Pat and his wife Linda's (the ubiquitous Judy Greer) scornful, tattered marriage. Take note: you have to carve out your own original bit of cookie-cutter sadness before you can be considered a real adult. Jeff isn't having any of it.

The film starts with Jeff tape-recording his stoner ramblings on the shitter with a handheld cassette recorder. What is he talking about? I won't spoil it, but it's funny, fitting; it provides a basis for the main underlying theme (destiny) and Segal nails it (OK, a hint: M. Night Shyamalan is significantly involved). Other highlights include the triumphant return of an aged Rae Dawn Chong (leading lady of many 80s flicks, including 1986's Soul Man--seriously where has she been?), and a fantastic, highly original score (get a taste of the music via some auto-start goodness at the movie's official website). Beck also contributes a beautiful, brand new track called "Looking for a Sign" that serves up montage fodder in as smooth and as genuine way possible. (It's amazing and kind of awesome that this song has not leaked online, but I can say from just the one listen that it was great: Beck is in full-on indie acoustic crooner mode with his Sea Change baritone; lush vocal overlays; aching harmonica solo, etc. Reminds me of hearing a song on the radio and not immediately being able to access it again until [future date x]--it's literally been years since I've appreciated a tune in this fashion, and the anticipation for hearing it again is strong; I feel like the mp3 will surface by the end of the day but still.)

Jeff does have a couple issues, though. My biggest beef is with the camerawork. Employing handhelds to give the film an extra boost of raw realism is fine, but their insistence on doing quick zooms on the actors' faces got annoying super-fast, because A) its over-obvious "look at this emotional response" plea not only belittles the viewer's intelligence but also short-sells the characters and actors, and B) I simply found myself waiting for the zoom on almost every shot; very distracting and ultimately unnecessary. Other than that, maybe a few of the lines that were specifically intended as jokes fell flat, but can't bitch about that as Helms and especially Segal pick up the slack by turning regular dialogue into humor with their great comedic sensibilities.

The most recent Duplass brothers' work that would be considered 'mainstream' (and I guess I'm really only counting this and 2010's Cyrus) will be and have been inevitability written off as quirky, the type of film for a very specific 'indie' audience. But I really disagree with that. They're minimalist and brief (83 and 91 minutes respectively), but to me they're what a good dark comedy should be. I will only peruse Rotten Tomatoes until after I've seen a film, lest I be struck with sage wisdom like this:

For a culture-at-large where five simple words can be so loaded, I guess two words are all most people need to summarize their feelings (even 'Top Critics'!). I'd like to think we're more complicated than that, and I think the Duplass brothers feel the same way.

SCORE: 8 out of 10



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