One week after seeing the film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, we are still talking about it. There’s so much to debate in this quirky film starring veteran actress Susan Sarandon and Jason Segel, the current “it” guy, appearing in the popular CBS-TV sitcom, How I Met Your Mother, and the film, The Muppet Movie, that it could anchor a course at a major university.
Some talking points we have come up with:
Are parents responsible for their children’s happiness?
How can we put aside our own opinions and embrace others for who they are?
Why do we have so much trouble communicating our real feelings to those closest to us?
Are there cosmic forces at work determining our destiny? If so, how do we tune in to these messages?
How do we remain close to those we love when our lives have turned out so differently?
Why do we judge others?
Would we risk our life to save someone else?
Are people in the right place at the right time by chance or by design?
The film was written and directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass who achieved success with the indie cult film The Puffy Chair, in which they also acted, and later directed Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and John C. Reilly, in Cyrus, another film that examined the relationship between a mother and son. The Duplass brothers seem to have a talent, not only for telling a good story, but also for excellent casting. Like the trio in Cyrus, the threesome in Jeff—besides Sarandon and Segel, Ed Helms from The Office—click and bring a verisimilitude to the story that is lacking in so many other films these days. Jeff may attract people looking for something besides adventure stories or fairy tales.
As the title implies, Jeff (Segel) is a 30-something living in his mother’s basement. Jeff’s life has come unstuck and, ironically, his mother (Sarandon) calls asking him to buy some wood glue to fix one of the kitchen shutters. Jeff has received another phone call, one asking for “Kevin.” Others might write off the call as a wrong number, but Jeff is convinced there are larger forces at work and that he’s meant to find someone named Kevin.
While Jeff seems super sensitive to what’s happening around him, his brother, Pat (Helms), is oblivious. Ostensibly the “successful” brother with a job and a wife, Pat is more adrift than Jeff. Over breakfast he tells his wife, Linda (Judy Greer), that he has bought a Porsche, even though they cannot afford to buy a house or start a family. Linda seeks sympathy from a male co-worker, lunching in an upscale restaurant that Pat has avoided taking her to. When she is spied by Pat, he thinks she’s having an affair.
Sharon (Sarandon) works in an office where her cubicle keeps her cut off from the outside world, a metaphor for how she has managed her life since her husband died. A paper airplane with a gardenia printed on it comes sailing into her workstation and she soon starts receiving IMs from a secret admirer. She is both intrigued and frightened that someone is watching her. She confides in her co-worker Carol (Rae Dawn Chong) and the two try to figure out who the mystery person could be.
The three are on separate missions—Jeff to find Kevin, Pat to uncover his wife’s affair, and Sharon to discover her secret admirer while also managing both her sons’ lives—yet their paths keep intersecting throughout the film. The final event will come up with some answers but leave many more questions.
While Segel’s physical presence is imposing, his Jeff is the most vulnerable and he conveys that sensitivity in subtle ways with his body language and facial expressions. He suffers a beating after chasing one man named Kevin, yet those superficial cuts and bruises hurt less than the criticisms from his mother and brother. “You’re the only ones I have left and you don’t understand me,” he shouts at Pat as he jumps on a delivery truck for Kevin Kandy. While Pat sees his brother as clueless, Jeff is the one to see things clearly. “You want your wife back? Tell her you want to fall in love with her again.” Simple yet somehow profound.
Helms, always a delight on The Office, plays befuddled well. He cannot understand how his marriage has come apart or what he needs to do to fix it. Greer turns in a good performance although she’s in danger of being typecast after also playing the suffering wife in The Descendants. Sarandon, is, as always, superb. Those wide eyes convey volumes, whether surprise as another IM pops up, exasperation after a phone call, or fear as she watches both of her sons fight for their lives.
This film is one that speaks to everyone who has ever thought about the meaning of life. Are we in control or is someone else pulling the strings? It’s not an original theme, just one presented in a thoughtful and entertaining way.