The Duplass brothers take another step toward conventional Hollywood storytelling without sacrificing the sincere, true-to-life quality that got studios interested in the first place with “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” Toplining Jason Segel as a 30-year-old man-child with no intention of leaving the nest, this likable Paramount release seems more tightly scripted than the siblings’ earlier, semi-improvised dramedies, but lacks the wonderful squirm-inducing quality that sets them apart. Graced with Susan Sarandon’s radiant turn as Jeff’s all-patient mother-enabler, this sweet but slight effort could modestly expand their aud beyond the slacker set to include middle-aged women.
Though “Jeff” admirably manages to observe its sad-sack hero without passing judgment (a key difference between this and Todd Solondz’s similar, considerably more cynical “Dark Horse”), older viewers will no doubt find it easier to identify with his situation from the perspective of his weary single mom, Sharon (Sarandon). While Sharon does the 9-to-5 at a traditional office job, her son sits around the basement contemplating the meaning of life.
A towering actor in the early stages of Gerard Depardieu-style expansion, Segel is physically so much bigger than his co-stars, one can’t ignore the fact this overgrown kid should have moved out long ago. But Jeff has no such ambitions, incapable of understanding what satisfaction older brother Pat (Ed Helms) gets from an “independence” that leaves him shackled to a lousy job and passive-aggressive wife Linda (Judy Greer).
The film takes place during the span of Sharon’s birthday, and all she asks is that Jeff get off the couch, take a bus to the hardware store and fix the broken shutter in the kitchen. With nothing better to do, Jeff steps out the front door and into a confusing world he’s convinced is trying to send him clues about his destiny, but immediately gets sidetracked by the first coincidence he encounters.
An opening monologue about the M. Night Shyamalan film “Signs” supplies Jeff’s dubious rationale for there being order in the chaos. Jeff’s perambulations leads him straight to his brother, who’s steamed that Linda doesn’t approve of his purchase of a new Porsche. Obvious midlife crisis aside, Pat discovers his marital problems are worse than imagined when he and Jeff spot Linda out driving with a strange man, sparking a pathetic attempt on the brothers’ part to determine whether she’s having an affair.
Though full of funny moments, “Jeff” doesn’t feature jokes in the conventional sense; rather, it’s loaded with moments of uneasy recognition, mostly amusing, but in many cases poignant as well. As in the Duplasses’ debut, “The Puffy Chair,” all the awkwardness and arguing masks what is essentially a tribute to the powerful bond between brothers. The scene in which Jeff sneaks into the fancy restaurant where Linda and her date are having lunch, squeezes into a too-small suit jacket and eavesdrops on their conversation from the adjacent booth would be right at home in a Blake Edwards movie. But it also shows that Jeff is willing to risk humiliation to help his brother — a sentiment Pat nicely repays in a surprise finale that rescues the day’s events from the purely banal.
What Sharon and her two sons have in common is that they are all prisoners to complacency, and on this particular day, they will each be given an opportunity to make big changes to the way they’ve been living. Sharon receives interoffice messages from a secret admirer who could be her first real shot at happiness since her husband’s death; Pat’s marriage can’t possibly proceed the way it’s been going in the past; and Jeff will discover the purpose of all those signs God/the universe/the Duplasses have been sending him.
Though production values look spindly by studio standards, that choice gives “Jeff” a convincing real-world feel, and Baton Rouge, La., is just bland enough to make the story seem that much more universal. Less aggressively handheld than “Cyrus,” Jas Shelton’s HD lensing is bright and clear, with short, quick zooms used for comic effect.