I never thought the movie Signs could be anyone’s life philosophy. But when we first meet Jeff (Jason Segel)—you know, the one who lives at home—he’s looking into the camera and in pre-credit soliloquy expounding on his deep admiration for M. Night Shymalan’s alien invasion thriller. Though it’s not just the aliens that strike his fancy; it’s the idea of signs—the faith in cosmic order and spiritual destiny with which Jeff lives his life. From the first few moments of Jeff, Who Lives At Home, the gently inspiring new dramedy from the Duplass Brothers, we learn that our hangdog hero doesn’t only live at home to avoid paying rent; he’s waiting to find out where he’s supposed to be.
The prologue also helps us slip easily onto the movie’s purposefully banal but romantically sparkled wavelength, where Segel, the disarmingly kind teddy bear in Judd Apatow’s troupe of Gen-Y slackers, comfortably plants his 6 foot 5 inch self. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the comedian made a joke out of his over-sized vulnerability by appearing completely nude during an emotionally naked break up scene. As Jeff, a 30-year-old couch potato who lives in his mother’s basement and finds even the simplest tasks beyond his capabilities (when his mother asks him to fix a broken shingle, she might as well be Caesar demanding he build the Coliseum), Segel is rich with overgrown childish wonder and simple innocence, selling Jeff’s half-wacky, half-profound confessionals about fate as completely earnest.
The plot of the film follows Jeff’s misadventures over the course of a day, as he chases what he thinks are signs that make up some larger grand design. After a wrong number bellows for someone named Kevin, Jeff is sure to investigate as many Kevins as he can find. Later, by chance, he runs into his more responsible brother, Pat (Ed Helms), who’s marriage to Linda (Judy Greer, the dependable every-woman who played the spouse of George Clooney’s nemesis in The Descendents) is coming apart at the seams—she might or might not be having an affair at the local Comfort Inn. Meanwhile, the boys’ mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), sits in her cubicle, on her birthday, puzzling over a mysterious admirer who won’t stop blowing up her computer with instant messages. The film explores how these threads are connected, and it begins to take on the characteristics of Magical Realism: the uncanny and unexplainable start encroaching on the everyday as we follow kind-hearted Jeff in pursuit of his destiny.
As a lost child in a costume of hoodies, unkempt facial hair, gray sweat pants, and bong smoke, Jason Segel gives his best performance since Sarah Marshall. He speaks for a generation of developmentally arrested young people who know they won’t be as rich as their parents, so decide not to grow up instead of trying. Helms, a veteran of TV’s The Office, is a pro at handling the story’s broader comedic bits—like when his spanking new Porsche plows straight into a tree—but also proves considerably adept at navigating the character’s more emotionally complex shades. Sarandon’s poignant subplot is like an independent vignette about an aging woman coping with the growing ambivalence she feels about her sexual allure and ability to make interpersonal connections. The element bubbling below the surface of things is the father and husband whose death ten years prior has become, to each individual person, an open sore of unhealed grief.
Mark and Jay Duplass, whose previous film Cyrus made an actor out of Jonah Hill, have again proved that their trademark mumblecore cinema is probably the closest thing we have to American Realism. Shot on location with naturalistic lighting, digital cameras, and quick zooms straight from a sitcom mockumentary, this sub-genre of Independent Films focuses on out-of-the-crowd protagonists with an Average Joe’s problems and relationships. Films like this one are refreshingly light and achingly human, sacrificing grandeur or Hollywood’s high-stakes faux-grandeur for the delicate sweetness and genuine sorrow that ordinary people feel in their ordinary, mundane lives. Moreover, their protagonists, as is the case here, are often young men free-floating in ennui per post-grad dislocation, pinpointing a generational malaise spurned on by an uncertain zeitgeist.Jeff is like the literal incarnation of unchecked American entitlement and Peter-Pan-Syndrome anxiety. But he’s a charming and loveable ragamuffin who’s just waiting for the right day to take responsibility for his life. And like they say, there’s no day like today. Beautifully written, directed and acted, with a simple but acknowledgeable xylophone score, this movie captures the spirit of American middle-class listlessness, but doesn’t propose wallowing in it; rather, taking action and seizing life. So, get out of your mother’s basement, follow the signs, and find your destiny at the theater with Jeff, Who Lives At Home.