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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.

The Descendants

Friday, November 25th, 2011

In The Descendants, George Clooney is rumpled. He wears Hawaiian shirts; his hair is grayer than usual. In other words, you don’t really question it when his character, a Hawaii-based attorney named Matt King, finds out that he’s a cuckhold. (Cheat on George Clooney? Never!) You’d think that Matt would be angry enough to, in a manner of speaking, kill his wife. But she’s already in a coma from a boating accident and may never awaken.

That’s the gist of writer-director Alexander Payne’s fifth film (co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and adapted from a Kaui Hart Hemmings novel), and like his previous hits About Schmidt and Sideways, its essence is bittersweet and not always easy to watch. Its pace is as leisurely as a day at the beach, making the lovely parts lovelier but the angst even more uncomfortable as its torturous moments are stretched.

And there are plenty of them: Matt’s the father of two teen girls but is admittedly the “understudy” parent who didn’t have much to do with them until their mother’s accident, and now he must not only learn how to be their Dad, but guide them through the roughest of times. It’s his older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, simultaneously fresh-faced and poised), who tells him of her mother’s affair. They’re both pissed, yet both mourning. Meanwhile, 10-year-old, testing-her-boundaries Scottie (Amara Miller) is kept oblivious to the affair as well as the severity of Mom’s condition.

Matt’s obsession with finding the guy his wife had been sleeping with comprises the bulk of The Descendants, along with a subplot involving an expansive lot of untouched Hawaiian land that he and his cousins have inherited and are about to sell. (To whom is a source of contention.) There’s some comedy here, coming mostly from Alexandra’s dopey, mouth-breathing boyfriend (Nick Krause) and Matt’s highly awkward attempt to meet the man he already loathes.

Underscoring it all, though, is the agony of watching a loved one die slowly; Clooney makes it look easy to deftly pedal through emotions ranging from anger to bitterness to grief and back again. (Judy Greer, in a small, serious role, also has a devastating scene.) Despite the extreme circumstances there’s no sense of contrivance here — it’s likely, in fact, that you’ll leave the theater musing about what you would do under the same conditions. And you get the feeling that Payne, ever the realist, would regard that as high praise indeed.

Henry’s Crime

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Keanu Reeves is as blank as ever in Henry’s Crime, a quasi-comic heist flick from Malcolm Venville, director of last year’s significantly better quasi-comic heist flick 44 Inch Chest. Reeves plays Henry, a Buffalo, N.Y., toll-booth operator who’s tricked into being the getaway driver for his friends’ bank holdup. He gets three years in prison; six months into his sentence, his wife (Judy Greer) tells him that she’s fallen in love with someone else. “Oh,” Henry says. “I’m really sorry,” she continues. “It’s all right,” Henry replies with zero emotion on his face. Um, it is?

Reeves similarly sleepwalks through the rest of the film, whose absurdity in storyline is matched by its absurdity in casting: James Caan and Vera Farmiga head-scratchingly join Reeves and Greer (who plays it serious and is in the movie all of five minutes) in this travesty, with only the ladies keeping their pride in tact. Caan plays Henry’s daffy cellmate Max, who prattles on about making the right choices and the importance of pursuing your dream the first day they meet. (One year — <em>one year</em> — later, Henry says to Max, “You know you never did tell me what your dream was,” as if they’d just had this talk the other day.)

Anyway, Max likes prison and routinely torpedoes his parole hearings so he can stay in the pen. But when Henry gets out, he asks that Max reconsider so he can help him out. You see, Henry discovers that there’s an old tunnel between the bank he was alleged to have helped rob and a theater across the street. Julie (Farmiga), who’d hit Henry with her car, happens to be an actress in a production at the theater, which Henry discovers when he wanders in one day. Sparks supposedly fly, which will be helpful in gaining better access to to theater so Henry can rob the bank for real. It’s all very convenient.

But not as convenient as subsequent turns of events, which are so ludicrous it makes Reeves’ acting the least of the film’s issues. Let’s just say that Henry ends up with a role in the play (!), and no one involved with the theater can apparently hear when a wall’s being knocked down. Other people want in on the caper and blackmail is eventually a concern. But that’s what happens when you casually tell people you’ve just met that you’re about to rob a bank, you know?

Buffalo, of course, is represented by snow, and the chill extends to Reeves and Farmiga’s allegedly hot couple. Not even an actress as talented and interesting as Farmiga can convince when there’s not one reason that Julie (who’s a bit high-strung and irritating herself) would fall for this insipid doof of a man. Caan, meanwhile, is alternately quick-thinking and batty, which also doesn’t make a lick of sense. The real crime here is that this film was made at all.

The Grand

Thursday, April 10th, 2008


Only one winner at this table

Even with a cast of aces up his sleeve, writer-director Zak Penn can’t beat Christopher Guest at his own game in The Grand, a star-studded pro-poker spoof improvised and shot in the erstwhile Nigel Tufnel’s trademark mockumentary style.

Penn’s a fair bluffer, though. To help flesh out his reportedly scant 29-page script (co-scratched with Matt Bierman), the writer best known for his work on the X-Men sequels gathered an ensemble skilled at both quick comedy and card-­playing—the project’s most interesting twist is that the ending was left open, allowing the story’s top competitors play the final big-stakes game for real.

Otherwise, The Grand is parody as usual, with its pseudo-sport, wacky-rivals angle now so familiar you expect Will Ferrell to show up among the mostly lower-profile names such as Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Chris Parnell, Richard Kind, Dennis Farina, and even Werner Herzog, amusingly cast as an intimidating player known simply as “The German.”

The focus of the story is Woody Harrelson’s Jack Faro, a gambler with so many addictions that he moved into a rehab center and who is now trying to win the money to buy back his dead grandpa’s casino. Unfortunately, Jack isn’t all that funny or even interesting; besting Harrelson in the Most Thankless Role category, however, is Gabe Kaplan, who isn’t exactly welcomed back as the cruel, crotchety, and downright unlikable father of Hines’ and Cross’ twin players. (Also wasted are Michael McKean, borrowed from the Guest troupe yet allowed only one good joke; Ray Romano, highly unfunny as a dead-weight husband; and Judy Greer, though considering her career choices, that’s less of a surprise.)

Mercifully, a few cast members keep things entertaining, most notably Hines, whose plays a dreadlocked trash-talker (“Nobody beats me at Candy Land—ask my kids”) but makes her human instead of caricature, and Parnell, whose ­underused Harold is a borderline idiot savant who quotes Dune, drones statistics in lieu of small talk, and has lived with his mother “since he was born.” Without them, The Grand would be a fast fold.