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Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Friday, March 16th, 2012

The title character of Jeff, Who Lives at Home doesn’t seem to mind much that he lives at home. Thirty years old and jobless, Jeff wakes up in the morning and dictates notes to himself into a recorder while he’s in the john. They are notes about the movie Signs; they are notes about cosmic signs. Jeff, you see, believes not in happenstance but in destiny. And he’s sure, sitting around his mother’s basement in sweats he probably hasn’t changed out of in days, that his is going to be great.

Jason Segel is perfectly rumpled as Jeff, an oversize adolescent somehow both huge and gangly who gets annoyed when Mom (Susan Sarandon) calls to remind him to fix the blinds because God Mom, I’ll get to it all right?! but at the moment he’s busy trying to rearrange the letters in “Kevin,” whom a wrong caller asked for this morning. (“Knive” is one possible anagram, but Jeff wisely dismisses it.) So, out of possibilities, Jeff takes the bus money his mother left him to go to Home Depot, only he doesn’t quite make it. There’s a kid on the bus with “Kevin” on his jersey, so he follows him. Later, a candy-delivery truck is emblazoned with “Kevin,” so he follows that, too. And so on, until he gets he finally accepts where he’s meant to be and what he’s meant to be doing — and that’s not fixing the blinds.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is writers-directors Jay and Mark Duplass’s furthest venture away from their beloved mumblecore genre — but don’t call it mumblecore! — with co-stars such as Ed Helms and Judy Greer amping up the wattage and likely contributing improvisation skills so finely honed the results don’t feel like the genre’s usual bumbling improvisation. (One irritating tick the Duplasses hung on to: the abrupt in-and-out zoom on actors’ faces. It’s so real, man.) But overall this feels like — gasp — a regular ol’ Hollywood movie. Besides Jeff’s wanderings, subplots involve the tension between his uptight brother, Pat (Helms), and Pat’s wife, Linda (Greer), as well as a secret admirer Mom has at her office. The latter is the weakest of the storylines, as it goes off the rails the moment the twist — which is telegraphed — is revealed, leading to first an upset admiree and then, seemingly an instant later, an ecstatic admiree.

Pat and Linda give the film its real emotional oomph as a struggling couple dealing with possible infidelity. (Even before you even get to know them, you want to strangle Pat when he “surprises” Linda with a Porsche they can’t afford.) Their scenes, as Jeff helps one trail the other, may be semiwacky, but the gist ends up breaking your heart. As far as Jeff, just when you think he’s fulfilled his “Kevin” cosmos for the day, the Duplasses add on a dramatic but-of-course-this-happens climax that isn’t really necessary. Jeff, Who Lives at Home may wrap up a little too neatly, but — despite the downers I’ve mentioned — it’s a fun time throughout, with Segel and Helms playing off each other well and delivering more laughs than letdowns. If this is mumblecore, it’s an example you can shout about.


Thursday, August 21st, 2008


Nope, no metaphor here.

An ingenue, a diva, a chucklehead, and a seemingly regular guy who turns out to be a chucklehead go into the woods to write a movie for their struggling-actor selves. It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but really it’s premise of Baghead, the second feature from mumblecore auteurs Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair).

The difference? About 83 minutes. Baghead isn’t a terrible movie, exactly, and actually starts out promisingly: The four main characters are watching a godawful film at an indie festival, alternately grimacing, laughing, and having the inevitable we-could-do-better-than-that thoughts. Turns out the director is an acquaintance of Matt’s (Ross Partridge), so he does some ass-kissing to try and score access to the screening’s afterparty. (”Did you just say his film was awesome?” chucklehead Chad (Steve Zissis) later asks with a nauseated look.)

They don’t get into the party, so instead decide to hole up at a family member’s cabin for the weekend to create their own script. Because the foursome comprise two sorta-couples – Matt and the arrogant Catherine (Elise Muller) have been on and off for 11 years, while Chad is trying to move beyond the friend zone with dippy Michelle (Greta Gerwig) – they’d like to write a romance. But when Michelle dreams about a guy stalking them with a bag on his head, a thriller takes shape – and then goes meta, when they realize the vision might not have just been a dream after all.

Compared to films such as Tropic Thunder and The Blair Witch Project, Baghead’s poke at the film industry and attempt at verite horror are a little like making vroom-vroom noises next to a Porsche. The Duplass’s main offense is their characters, who despite being well into their 30s (with the possible exception of Michelle) act like brats, playing nasty tricks on each other and doing a lot of pouting when things don’t go their way. (Puffy Chair’s peeps weren’t always likable, but they were realistic – and in a superior movie.)

Also throw-your-Skittles irritating is the directors’ camerawork, which is wobbly with frequent focus adjustments and sudden zooms. There are a couple of decent scares here, and the sexual tension between the four sometimes feels believable, if unequivocally 10th-grade-ish. With digital cameras getting cheaper and film festivals reproducing like mosquitoes, Baghead isn’t likely to mark the end of the lo-fi movement. But it’s a good argument against hailing amateur as the new pro.