Posted September 5, 2012 by Jonathan McCalmont in DVD/Blu-ray
 
 

Jeff Who Lives At Home


Somewhere between the laughter of comedy and the challenge of serious

Somewhere between the laughter of comedy and the challenge of serious
drama lies a fertile crescent of whimsical insight.
Heavily mined in films including
Up in the Air, About Schmidt and The
Descendants
, this particular area of filmmaking aims to be a little bit
smarter than comedy and a little bit lighter than the ponderous middlebrow dramas
that habitually colonise the best film shortlists at the Oscars. Part of this
tradition but never as funny, insightful, brave or innovative as either Alexander Payne’s Sideways or Jason Reitman’s
Young Adult, Jay and Mark Duplass
third film Jeff Who Lives At Home is
a painfully unambitious journey through some decidedly familiar cinematic
terrain.

The film opens with a portrait of two
very different brothers: The younger
brother Jeff (Jason Segel) is a
chronically lazy pot-smoker who ambles through life in search of some sign from
the cosmos. The older brother Pat (Ed Helms)
is a tightly wound middle manager whose ambitions are blinding him to the
imminent failure of his marriage.
Forced to spend the day together by narratively convenient maternal (Susan Sarandon) fiat, the brothers
clash violently before eventually coming to learn from one another. As Pat
discovers the value of emotional openness and Jeff realises that there are
times when the contemplation must cease, all of the brothers’ emotional
blockages dissolve leaving nothing but a vast saccharine lake of
unobjectionably generic wisdom.

Jeff Who Lives At Home is possibly
the most generic film ever made. Packed with stock characters wandering through
the kind of character arcs that grace dozens of other films, the Duplass
brothers deliver the achingly familiar in a style that is as safe as it is
forgettable. In fact, this film’s characters are so recognisable that one
cannot help but feel deprived of the actors that are usually typecast in these
particular roles. For example, Segel is as likeable here as he was in Forgetting Sarah Marshall but his turn
as a rudderless geek with a heart of gold lacks the satisfying bedrock of anger
and self-loathing that the likes of Seth
Rogen
and Jonah Hill usually
bring to this character type. Similarly, Helms’ Pat is a gruff pepper pot of
squabbling neuroses but his charmless irritability does nothing but remind us
of the profound humanity that allowed Paul
Giamatti
to effectively monopolise this type of part. The only non-generic
character in the entire film is Sarandon’s matriarch who spends her days pursuing
anonymous online romance. Packed with promise and rendered fascinating by
Sarandon’s tentative and yet sparkling middle-aged sexuality, the role is
isolated from the rest of the plot where it dwindles into nothing but Sarandon
pulling faces at her computer monitor.

The real problem with Jeff Who
Lives At Home is the film’s complete lack of creative ambition. The Duplass brother began their
filmmaking careers as part of the loveably aimless American Mumblecore movement. Best know for
producing films such as Lynn Shelton’s
Humpday and Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather,
Mumblecore shares the seriocomic feel associated with the films of Reitman and
Payne but tackles those tropes with ultra-low budgets, amateur actors and a
willingness to rely heavily upon improvised dialogue. Given the tonal and thematic similarities between Mumblecore
and the subgenre that produced Sideways and About Schmidt, the decision to
invite a Mumblecore director to ‘step up to the big leagues’ was as inevitable
as it was logical. Unfortunately, somewhere between the loss of improvised
dialogue and the acquisition of a famous actress, the Duplass brothers appear
to have lost their ability to invent new stories, resulting in a film so safe
and generic that it feels more like a barren intellectual exercise than an
actual work of cinematic art.

The only thing redeeming this film
is the idea of Susan Sarandon’s character finding sexless love with another
straight woman. Packed with quirky humour and a good deal of genuine insight
into the human condition, this sub-plot really deserved its own film. Sadly,
until the Duplass brothers decide to make a film Entitled Susan, Who Fell in Love With Another Woman Despite Being Straight,
we are left with this mess of tried-and-tested clichés.


Jonathan McCalmont