From the first moments of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, we want to like this offbeat film whose charm begins with its well-placed comma in the title and its shaggy-dog namesake character. Fans of the writer/director brothers Jay and Mark Duplass’s earlier film Cyrus naturally bring some high-ish expectations to the new model, but somewhere along Jeff’s coincidence-prone, Murphy’s Law storyline, it becomes evident that this is a film whose center does not hold and whose attempts at edginess mostly fall flat.
Tousle-haired and tousle-brained Jeff (Jason Segel) is a pothead idealist who hasn’t found his groove in the real world yet, living at home in Baton Rouge at age 30, but who may have a line on higher wisdom. In another area of the plot, we have Jeff’s pragmatic, employed, and married (though tenuously) brother (played by Ed Helms, in an extension of his role in TV’s The Office), and his widowed, love-forlorn mother (Susan Sarandon, in glowing form). The implied operative question becomes this: Which of these characters has a stronger hold on reality? And whose reality is the truer one?
Peripheral elements of the film go awry alongside the strained narrative scheme — or are maybe more noticeable because of the story’s wooziness. Michael Andrews’s musical score is a bland rehash of the old Thomas Newman score for American Beauty, all borrowed hipness, while the camerawork regrettably suffers from the tic of handheld camera “street cred” and random zooming in and out, as if the camera operator hasn’t figured out which knob does what yet. Dramamine may be recommendable for moviegoers prone to motion sickness.
For all its ample appeal and sense of mild daring, Jeff doesn’t come together in the ways it seems to want to. While self-consciously quirky and almost wannabe Wes Anderson-ish at times, the film is too tidy and TV-esque to touch us on any deep level. A core problem is that we never connect with these characters and narrative veracity, to the detriment of empathy, yet they’re not absurd enough to be taken as gonzoid, surreal comic-book characters either. Jeff, where is thy sting and thy inner idiot savant?