Film Review – Jeff, Who Lives at Home
It is not often that you are lucky enough to see when filmmakers really hit their stride. In my opinion, the Duplass brothers have done just that with their latest film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home. I have enjoyed their previous films, but everything finally comes together for me here.
The film follows title character Jeff (played by Jason Segel), who is in search of his purpose in life. His relationships with his mom (played by Susan Sarandon) and brother (played by Ed Helms) are strained, as neither of them can understand how he drifts through life. At the same time, they find themselves at crossroads in their lives. After Jeff receives a phone call from a wrong number from someone looking for “Kevin,” it sets off a domino chain of events that lead them all on personal journeys as their lives are turned upside down.
The tone of the movie is set from the opening scene, as Segel’s character gives a monologue about his love of the movie Signs, and how despite the movie seeming like a random series of events, it ultimately comes together beautifully in the end. This scene provides an excellent introduction to the character, as well as establishing a language to understand the movie as it goes forward. Everything in the movie has a purpose, and it probably will take multiple views to really appreciate all the nuance that is going on.
The Duplass brothers continue growing as filmmakers. Starting out as indie darlings, this is their second major Hollywood production (following 2010’s Cyrus), and it shows an immense amount of growth. They have moved from casting their friends in their movies to casting Hollywood stars, but their ability to not be lost in the pressure to cast “names” is one of the greatest successes of the movie. Sure, Segel, Helms, and Sarandon are famous and will sell some tickets, but the important thing is that their chemistry together is spectacular and they genuinely feel like a family.
The film is a beautiful meditation on faith—not in a religious sense, but in oneself. Jeff believes he has a purpose in his life and is essentially willing to do anything to find it, even if it is at his own expense: physically, mentally, and emotionally. The film does a great job of speaking to both topics of immediate importance as well as the big picture. And while it might not be as big or as deep as films such as The Matrix or Inception, it still makes me want to talk about it in that way.
The film presents a recurrence of one of the frequently recurring themes in the Duplass brothers’ past work: a dysfunctional family. The thing about their work in Jeff, Who Lives at Home and their other works is that they treat everyone like a human, and there are no caricatures. Characters might be flawed, but everyone has their motivations and they do a good job—it would’ve been really easy to make characters in this movie the “bad guy,” but the flaws make the characters feel human, and the viewer can feel empathetic.
It is a lot of fun to see Segel and Helms getting to exercise their dramatic muscles; both of them are excellent actors who so frequently are associated with their comedic work that this is sometimes forgotten. While there are funny moments in the movie, the heart is what leaves the most lasting impression. It is really moving to see their characters finally come to understand and appreciate each other, moving on from just dealing with each other because they are related. It is also nice to see Sarandon get another role with some meat on it; it has been a while and she clearly still has talent.
Even more so than the topline talent, the Duplass brothers have done an excellent job of casting their supporting actors, choosing veterans such as Judy Greer and forgotten stars such as Rae Dawn Chong. Their screen time might be short, but their contributions are immense. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare the Duplass brothers to Quentin Tarantino in their ability to think outside the box for actors, but they have done a good job in not getting bogged down in casting stars. Also, while they might be growing their talent pool, frequent Duplass actor Steve Zissis makes an appearance in a smaller role, but an equally important one.
To me, the first thing I look for in a movie is entrainment value. If it makes me want to talk about themes, ideas, or story, that is just gravy. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is one of the rare films that makes me want to talk about all of those elements. To me, that is a huge success. I’m sure not everyone will love it, but I think it is worth watching—at the very least, we should try to make more movies like this.
Final Grade: A