What’s your sign?
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Jay and Mark Duplass are brothers who make movies together. Their credits read “written and directed by,” but their movies don’t seem written so much as earnestly improvised, and they hardly seem directed at all—except for a tendency to quick-zoom in on details every now and then. That optical lurch is like listening to someone who constantly blurts “Ooh! Look!” and grabs your shirt to focus your attention where they want it—a nervous tic that might be annoying if it weren’t for the fact that what they want you to look at really is pretty interesting.
In Jeff, Who Lives at Home what they want us to look at is Jeff Thompkins (Jason Segel), and their camera focuses on him better than he seems to focus on anything else. Jeff is 30 and living in his mother’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana, basement in a cloud of bong smoke, timidly grasping at ideas about the universe like a dog snapping at soap bubbles floating by. When we first see Jeff he’s speaking into a voice recorder, ruminating on the profundity of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002), and we think: OMG, this is a guy who thinks about the deep meaning of M. Night Shyamalan movies! Then the camera steps back to show us where Jeff is sitting, and we think: On the toilet!
The world is full of signs, Jeff tells his little recorder; we just have to watch for them and know how to read them when they come. The precise meaning of the sign the Duplass brothers have just given us about Jeff is left mercifully unexpressed.
Later, Jeff sits slack-jawed on the couch staring at a braying pitchman on TV: “Call now! Pick up that phone and change your life!” At that instant, the phone on the coffee table rings, and we see a foggy “Whoa!” waft across Jeff’s eyes. It’s somebody calling for Kevin, somebody who gets very angry when Kevin isn’t there. Anyone else would see a simple wrong number, but not Jeff. To him there are no wrong numbers, no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason, and somehow this is a sign.
Jeff’s mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) calls from work. She wants Jeff to go to Home Depot and buy some wood glue to fix a broken shutter in the kitchen; is that asking so much? Sharon seems to spend a third of her life prodding Jeff, a third enabling him and a third sitting in her dreary office cubicle staring at a photo of a woodland waterfall that adorns her barren workspace. But now something new enters the picture: Sharon has a secret admirer, sending her timid, teasing IMs on the office computer system. Despite herself, Sharon is tickled and interested.
The third side of the family is Jeff’s brother Pat (Ed Helms), the exact opposite of Jeff. Pat is tense, even jumpy, masking early midlife insecurity behind a blowhard false confidence—the kind of part Helms plays so well. Pat and his wife Linda (Judy Greer) are on the outs over his splurging on a new Porsche; she thought they were saving to buy a house.
Jeff leaves the house on his mother’s errand, but the name Kevin still rings in his head, and he gets sidetracked on one Kevin after another. Somehow this causes his path to cross Pat’s, just at the moment when Pat begins to suspect Linda is having an affair, and he wants Jeff to spy on her for him. It’s a sign of Pat’s desperation—what kind of spy could Jeff ever make?
Meanwhile, Sharon confides to co-worker Carol (Rae Dawn Chong) about her secret admirer, and Carol advises her to follow this new thing in her life to see where it leads. What harm can it do?
Jeff, Who Lives at Home galumphs along from one episode to the next with a somehow lovable sense of ramshackle inevitability. Neither Jeff nor Pat (nor, in a less noisy way, Sharon) seem to have any control over their lives, so it’s almost a given that anything they try to do will run out of control (driving Pat’s new car into a tree is only the beginning).
All roads, and all Jeff’s vaguely perceived signs, converge in a traffic jam on a bridge out of town for a sweet and extremely satisfying conclusion. Does it strain coincidence to the breaking point? No doubt. But Jeff has been telling us for 83 minutes that there are no coincidences, and even if he is a bong-toking slacker—hey, when you’re right, you’re right.