“Everyone and everything is interconnected in this universe. Stay pure of heart and you will see the signs. Follow the signs and you will uncover your destiny.”
This inspirational number—which sounds eerily like one of the many recycled pieces of advice geared to 20-somethings these days—is the opening quote of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” Surprisingly, it is attributed not to an ancient philosopher but to the titular character, Jeff. The next scene reveals a pensive Jason Segal, who plays Jeff, in the middle of an earnest conversation with himself, loudly questioning his fate, his role in the universe. Then the camera pans out and reveals that Jeff is, in fact, sitting on the toilet.
This quirky opening encapsulates the overall appeal of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” The film laughs at itself, but also reveals a very real moment of human confusion. This absurd yet believable combination of existential tension and bodily function is what makes viewers relate to a character in the throes of a life transition.
Jeff is an unemployed, basement-dwelling, pot-smoking 30-year-old who cohabitates with his mother, played by the very compelling Susan Sarandon. The film’s plot covers a day in the life of this family. Incidentally, this particular day is the mother’s birthday, and also the day that Jeff is confronted by his older brother, Pat, played by Ed Helms.
Affable, stoned and unassuming Jeff tries to seek out his destiny for the day, but is restricted by his mother’s expectations for a day spent outside the house and his brother’s expectations for him to be dissatisfied with his socially unacceptable state.
Pat is only moderately financially successful and feels superior to Jeff, but his Porsche does little to disguise the cynicism that has come to define him and place him in diametric opposition to his late-blooming, daydreaming, hopeful baby brother. These estranged brothers are forced to interact over a daylong wild-goose chase that features a mugging, candy, adultery, wood glue and several near-death experiences.
Jay and Mark Duplass, brothers and colleagues, directed this film in 2011 and tend to present a warts-and-all perspective of cinematography. Their earlier film, “Cyrus,” also plays with dramatic themes related to flawed family life. Death, divorce, spectrums of sexuality and betrayal are just a few of the subjects covered.
Consistent with their style, some scenes are so awkward you cannot help but cringe, and others are so genuinely moving you end up crying in the Somerset room. Allegedly. “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” feels like the lovechild of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Stepbrothers” and, despite mediocre reviews, deserves more artistic credit.
The actors do not look like Hollywood starlets, the locations are suburban and the set design usually features hauntingly familiar tacky wallpaper, but because of the sincerity in both acting and production, these would-be blemishes become tactile points of connection between a film and its audience.
We can run with a breathless Sega;, we can cry with Helms in a bathtub and we can occasionally find moments of serenity on a dilapidated sofa after a surprising day. We can empathize. These characters struggle to find meaning in seemingly ordinary lives and we, the audience, have the privilege of finding meaning in their struggle.
Even though the film is less than ninety minutes long—very short, very sweet—the breadth and depth of the familial matters addressed are impressive. “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is currently available on Netflix. Enjoy the subtlety of this emotional roller coaster.