The Duplass Brothers (The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus) have moved on from the nobility of helping create the ephemeral mumblecore genre, to helping it ease into the quasi-mainstream with their last work, Cyrus. Even with the surreal nature of something like their horror farce Baghead, the focus has always been on the tangible, and specifically, the real lives of real people. Their latest work, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, reinforces the brothers’ mission statement by examining the nature of meaning, and how we learn to ascribe it to our lives.
The opening scene sets the tone perfectly; layabout thirty-year old Jeff (Jason Segel) is firmly rooted in the idea that everything happens for a reason, and nothing is an accident. He explains this analogy to us by deconstructing M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi hit Signs, but it serves a grander purpose for the Duplass Brothers. Using this template, they examine what our interactions with each other, from the cosmic to the meagre, from a wrong number to a possibly flirtatious touch on the arm, actually mean.
Jeff’s brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is in a crumbling marriage with Linda (Judy Greer), unaided by the fact that he makes irresponsible financial decisions behind her back, and soon enough, finds out that she might be seeing another man. After a chance encounter with his brother, the siblings begin to investigate whether Linda is being unfaithful, all while Jeff ponders the reason he is here on Earth, as their mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon) is bogged down with a seemingly empty, loveless existence.
After the electric comic combination of Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly proved so winning in the Duplass Brothers’ last film, it is little surprising that they have turned to a similar comic caste for their latest venture. Segel and Helms both reprise the stereotypical roles which have defined their careers to date – the slacker and the uptight goof respectively – yet imbue them with enough honesty and heart that they do not feel like retreads, but rather refinements.
And while the subject matter might seem quite conventional, the mumblecore style imparts it with fresh life, a clever choice with which to dissect concepts of mysticism and fortune, what with its focus on a handheld, faux-verite look. The yin-yang of Jeff’s fascination with interconnected incidents being diametrically opposed to Pat’s belief in simply what he can see – or what he thinks is happening – is not the film’s secret, but rather a simple, but simply effective way to convey two conflicting paths through life.
With its marital arc, there is also an impressive and heartfelt depiction of a strained marriage on the rocks, made all the better by the fantastic performances. During the film’s best scene, a hotel confrontation between Pat and Linda, Segel leaves the room, giving Helms and Greer space to tear the house down, in a stupendously well-acted exchange which forms the film’s emotional crux. We understand their predicament and their pain, whether we have been there ourselves or not.
However, it is not a film that focuses incessantly on pain; it is also, like all of their other features, a wryly funny, sweetly warm film, specifically concerned here with the power of redemption, and the importance of togetherness. This is hammered home in unconventional ways, particularly with regard to Sharon’s arc; her friendship with a co-worker, Carol – played by Rae Dawn Chong, who served best as the hilarious comic relief in Arnie’s Commando almost thirty years ago – might seem especially obvious, but it unequivocally works.
The third act encounters some oddities for the mumblecore genre, introducing perhaps the first legitimate “set-piece” of any film of this type. While it might hew away from the minimalist parameters which initially defined it, this isn’t exactly Dogme 95; the rules are malleable. It does little to unscrew the film, and in fact only heightens the emotional intensity – as well as the satisfaction – of its final moments. A well-placed, poignant indie soundtrack also helps the medicine go down all the easier.
This brilliantly acted film is another home run for The Brothers Duplass; life affirming and sure to put a spring in your step.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is out in UK cinemas now.