In Which the Duplass Brothers Make Henry Cry

03/15/2012 4:00 AM |

Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Directed by Mark and Jay Duplass

This shaggy-dog comedy-turned-melodramatic weepie—about fate, interconnectedness and the desire for meaning—opens with a monologue by the title character in defense of Signs, an apologia for meandering films whose narrative ramblings reflect our own unsteady pas de deux with fate. The plotty Jeff asks us not only to bear with its own tortuous storytelling, but to accommodate and appreciate the twists in our own life stories. Everything happens for a reason, follow your destiny—all that bunk.

Jason Segel (soft, warm and weary) and Ed Helms (playing to type) star as brothers with polar personalities—the former is an easygoing, New Age-y pothead; the latter, an uptight product of khakified corporate culture. (I wonder if the writer-director Duplass brothers’ own relationship informs this fictional rivalry?) An especially poignant Susan Sarandon plays their mother, an aging and unhappy widow who spends most of the movie in her office cubicle. They’re all essentially miserable, stunted amid the spiritual void that pervades strip-mall suburbia; the Baton Rouge setting lacks even a streak of regional color. Segel ambles between random adventures; Helms stalks his possibly unfaithful wife; and Sarandon deals with an inter-office IM admirer. All three stories interweave throughout, but they don’t truly intersect until a traffic jam on the highway to New Orleans, where the movie’s sauntering story swerves unexpectedly into emotionally overwrought tragedy.

I haven’t cried more at a movie this year, though I felt stupid for doing so. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is manipulative, its every plot turn a clumsy coincidence or labored absurdity. But the Duplasses’ unobtrusive, shaky-cam naturalism fosters intimacy, and the actors are so full of feeling (especially Segel, whose comic persona makes it easy to forget his dramatic talents) that their characters are sympathetic in their actions, regardless of the artifice of their situation. Most importantly, the Duplasses seem totally aware of, and unbothered by, their conspicuous contrivances. The script is silly, but so what? Sometimes life is silly, the film suggests. All we can do is accept that everything happens for a reason, follow our destinies—all that sagacity.

Opens March 16