It's obvious that Jason Segel has a face for comedy. He's got a lumpy, sad-sack mug with a dozen inflections to register disappointment, confusion and self-doubt. But as the basement-dwelling hero in the Duplass brothers' new quest movie, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Segel works his entire posture for laughs. He slumps expressively on the couch, doing bong rips and ignoring chore requests from his exasperated mother (Susan Sarandon). He cringes meekly when being scolded by his older brother (Ed Helms), who at least has a job and wife. When recruited into a game of pickup basketball, Segel suddenly grows in stature, his confidence palpably expanding. (It helps that he played hoops in high school.) And yet Segel has more range than simply being a six-foot-four schlemiel. Jeff is a surprisingly mutable, ultimately poignant day-in-the-life drama about a slacker who genuinely wants to stand tall. Just give me the chance, says Jeff hopefully. "All this randomness is leading somewhere."
Jay and Mark Duplass are commonly tagged as mumblecore filmmakers — another restrictive label, like calling Segel a mere comic. Look back on The Puffy Chair and Cyrus, and you'll see a careful attention to the textures of awkwardness and uncertainty. Their characters aren't shoe-gazers so much as demi-adults in the process of discovering, however belatedly, who they are. There are weird emotional shifts in tone (as there are in normal life), here compressed into a single-day structure that alternates between Jeff's increasingly meandering errand and his widowed mother Sharon's romantic misadventure at work. He's trying to grow up. She's trying to remember what that was like.
Mistaking a misdialed morning phone call for the voice of destiny (yes, he's already stoned), Jeff sets out by bus for the hardware store. He's in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but you can hardly tell. There's a visual drabness to Jeff, a kind of indifference to cinematic craft, but it suits the initial mood — the haze that our hero wants to emerge from. When he stumbles into Pat, his overbearing asshole of a brother, there's the useful counterexample of a guy who's too purposeful, unlike the aimless Jeff. Wearing the emblazoned shirt for a paint store where he's undoubtedly in sales, Pat's only desires are, A) for his wife to shut up and defer to him, and B) to buy a Porsche Boxster that's way beyond their means. Why did Linda (the fine Judy Greer, recently seen in The Descendants) marry such a jerk? That's one of the mysteries to be solved in Jeff, along with Jeff's ultimate purpose and the identity of Sharon's secret admirer at the office.
The karma-caper plot is propelled by a series of coincidences and clues that Jeff, so determined to be open, follows into a procession of blunders. Cars are wrecked, a marriage topples toward ruin, a few punches are thrown, but this is a comedy of serendipity, not aggression. Jeff has a touch of Lebowski about him, only without the attained state of Zen grace (that perhaps being one of his goals). There's shambling stubborn decency to Jeff. He's genuinely embarrassed when Pat enlists him to spy on Linda with a possible lover, and he takes Pat's escalating tirades with shrugging acceptance (but, crucially, only to a point). Helms, the famous toothless dentist in The Hangover, has never been quite so loathsome before; his Pat is a prick and genetic outlier in the clan. You could call Jeff a comedy of maternal disappointment, but only gradually is it clear which son troubles Sharon more, which is more removed from her generous spirit.
In her interplay with a sympathetic coworker (Rae Dawn Chong — where's she been since the '80s?), Sarandon could well be auditioning for The Office. (Cast her!) Her Sharon is both warm and wary, a woman past middle age who's shocked to be engaged in flirtatious IM chats and a water-cooler rendezvous. Whatever poor Jeff is seeking is something she's long forgotten, like the Hawaiian waterfall she keeps in a frame on her desk. And she, like both her sons, is in need of a pivot point in her life, a second chance. (The movie could've been titled Sharon, Who Needs Love.)
When all their characters and coincidences ultimately converge, it ought not be surprising that the Duplass brothers hand out multiple merit badges — but at least they feel earned. From comedy to romance, Jeff finally ends with a bit of action. It's not a major film, but an endearing adventure in hope nonetheless.