Ed Helms and Jason Segel in Jeff, Who Lives at Home

In the gently comic new film from Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus) Jason Segel is Jeff who lives at home. Killing time in his mother’s basement, the doughy 30-something spends his ample free time smoking weed and watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, convinced that the universe is full of connections and guideposts and that the answer to it all can be found by being open to the idea that every coincidence and accident has meaning. To Jeff’s fuzzy mind, the mysteries of the universe will be revealed simply by connecting the dots all around us. An angry wrong number looking for someone named Kevin combined with a simple mission to buy some wood glue to fix the pantry door for his increasingly exasperated mother launches Jeff on an unexpected journey of connecting those dots. Along the way he crosses paths with his troubled brother, his mother, memories of his father and finally with himself as he begins to engage with the world around him instead of sitting and waiting for its meaning to be revealed to him.

The Duplass brothers have made a name for themselves in the indie film world with their scruffy, aimless slacker characters, naturalistic conversational dialogue and hand-held camera aesthetic. They came close to a mainstream breakout with the mini-major studio backed Cyrus, but that film was perhaps just a little too willfully odd to win over a large audience. With Jeff, Who Lives at Home, they’ve continued to refine their technique and, while they haven’t made any obvious compromises, they’ve nevertheless come up with their most approachable and appealing work to date. They don’t celebrate their slacker man-child title character, but neither do they judge him. They give him room to breathe and to eventually find his own way and to embrace life. It’s an endearingly quirky character piece and a celebration of life that fits comfortably and confidently alongside such cult hits as Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude and Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero.

As Jeff, Jason Segel is perfect and I say that as someone who generally finds him lacking and uncompelling as a big screen presence. He isn’t an actor who commands your attention whenever he’s on the screen, but neither is Jeff such a character. For most of the film in fact, the dramatic focus is on the other characters in the film, namely Ed Helms as Jeff’s brother Pat and Susan Sarandon as his mother Sharon. Jeff is just the wood glue that holds the drama together. At the same time, he’s sweet-natured, utterly lacking in cynicism and basically decent, trusting and likable. The movie doesn’t quite work if you don’t like Jeff a little in spite of his aimlessness and lack of motivation and Segel is difficult not to feel affectionately toward.

Ed Helms meanwhile adds a darker spin to his usual clueless dope character. There’s a genuine panic at the root of some of his midlife crisis-like behavior and Helms keeps it honest and grounded without ever over-playing the drama. Pat’s big problem is an increasing belief that his wife Linda (Judy Greer who is also terrific) is cheating on him. The two are involved in a key confrontation that shifts Jeff out of the comfortable, amusing, lackadaisical groove it had been previously cruising along in and into something much more serious. There’s a bracing honesty and pain to their argument that pins the film down just when it seems like it might drift away. From that point on, it’s much more than the amiable goof it seems to set out to be.

For her part, Susan Sarandon is also wonderful as Jeff and Pat’s somewhat befuddled mother. She cares about her sons even as she’s infuriated by them yet long past the stage where she can really do anything to change them. At the same time, it’s increasingly clear that she still hasn’t recovered from the untimely loss of her husband and she’s more than a little bit lonely. At seemingly just the right time, an office secret admirer promises to shake her out of her funk and send her on her own path to self discovery that coincidentally or not leads her on a collision course with Jeff and Pat.

That all the film’s story threads lead to the same traffic jam on the same bridge for the climax seems to play into Jeff’s notions about the interconnectedness of the universe and some might find the coincidence to be a little much, but what happens there transcends coincidence. By this point, Jeff is in the process of realizing that life isn’t exactly what he thought it was. That his father died when he was a boy in and of itself is meaningless. It’s what he and Pat do with that experience that counts. Life goes forward until it stops. You can get off your ass and engage with it and perhaps guide it, or you can sit back and let it happen, waiting in vain for it all to make sense. Life isn’t about finding meaning in random coincidence, it’s about making your own human connections. It’s about wanting to matter to people or to the bigger universe as a whole.

After an unassuming start, Jeff, Who Lives at Home rather surprisingly winds up as nothing less than a profound, moving and fundamental rumination on what gives life significance. It’s made all the more appealing by the fact it finds its answers in unexpected but gentle and lovely ways and without every explicitly forcing its case.

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All material copyright 2007-2012 by Craig Kennedy unless otherwise stated