Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 01, 2012 3:03 pm 
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Fortunate accidents

The Duplass brothers, who moved away from mumblecore with their 2010 movie Cyrus, have taken a further step forward, partly toward Hollywood convention, but also toward accomplished, mature filmmaking, with Jeff, Who Lives at Home. This movie is modest, and like Cyrus still focuses on a man who lives with his mother (he's thirty, instead of Jonah Hill's twenty), but where Cyrus had sharp scenes but was ultimately aimless, this shows a remarkable sense of structure, and instead of creepy, it's genial and inclusive. In Cyrus the brothers were amping up the awkwardness when the lonely man played by John C. Reilly tries to date Marisa Tomei, but her large, almost incestuously close twenty-year-old son, Jonah Hill, gets in the way. Nothing like that here. The brothers are largely working out of doors, in multiple locations that they neatly coordinate, culminating with a big traffic jam and a family rescued from drowning. The loser son, thirty-year-old Jeff (a fine Jason Segal) may be goofy, wandering around looking for signs, but he's sort of a wise fool, and the movie ends with the warm coming together of classic comedy, and Jeff is the catalyst for it all, but coincidence plays a major role. The movie is asking us to trust, and believe in the possibility of happy accidents.

This could be seen as just a series of semi-comic skits, but that would be to miss how everything fits together -- literally, as symbolized by the wooden shutter slat that Jeff neatly glues back in for his mom in the very last scene. Jeff's life seems aimless, but it has a larger meaning. The whole movie turns out to be cleverly coordinated, as if to serve a higher purpose. The big, blowzy Segal exudes good nature and a sense of stillness here, but he is the motivator in every scene. His "normal," employed, married brother Pat (Ed Helms) is a confused, untrustworthy motormouth who goes around making messes. Later on Pat and Jeff chase around after Pat's possibly adulterous wife, Linda (Judy Greer). Their mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) for most of the action is at her office job, fielding flirty emails and calling Jeff to see if he's doing anything.

As the movie begins Jeff goes off on a bus following Sharon's instructions to get wood glue at Home Depot. But somebody called him before he left asking for "Kevin," and he takes it as a sign when a young black man gets on the bus wearing a shirt with "Kevin" on it -- and follows Kevin off the bus. Eventually this leads him to his brother. Meanwhile there's a third strain: Pat has had a fight with his wife because he's bought an expensive Porsche when they should be saving up for a house. Then he has an accident in the Porsche with Jeff and it gets towed while they're spying on Linda at a restaurant with a male coworker.

The Duplasses are diagramming relationships, while conducting a series of farcical scenes. Sharon may be lonely, and a relationship may be coming in to her from left field. Pat may be losing his marriage -- but he doesn't want to be. Jeff is looking for a way to make a difference -- and he finds it. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is about chance. It's the purest coincidence, or luck (and of course farcical, ridiculous) that when Jeff again follows a "Kevin," this time a food truck emblazoned with that name, it lands him at the hotel where Pat has followed his wife and her coworker. It's also a coincidence that -- but better not to reveal all the happy accidents or it will take the fun out of them.

The brothers still owe a debt to Todd Solondz, providing like Mike White and various others more of a lite, toned down version, and here the sometimes intensely real-feeling cringe-worthiness of their earlier work, particularly the sharp embarrassments of Cyrus, is nearly gone, which has caused critics to react less favorably to this film than Cyrus. But though this movie may be more conventional, it's also more mature and more assured. It's surprising that more reviewers haven't seen the higher level of craft on view here. And a look at a wider range of lives. The film in part returns to affirming the strength of the bond between brothers as did their debut feature, The Puffy Chair.

Jeff is an interesting character. He's a pot-puffing goof-off, and his basing his quest for the meaning of life on M.Night Shyamalan's Signs seems rather pathetic. But he is more deft with physical things than his working brother Pat, whose job is quite uninteresting. Playing basketball with Kevin and his friend, he shows he's got some game. And later he stages a heroic rescue. Besides, he seems as close to serenity as anybody in the film. Is he a doofus, or does he know something? The Duplass brother's portrait, helped by Jason Segal's relaxed and appealing performance, is more complex than anything in Cyrus.

The movie takes a close look at a disintegrating marriage undermined by "passive-aggressive" behavior. A further expansion of world-view, so to speak, comes through the inclusion of Susan Sarandon, whose portrait of a beautiful sixty-something still capable of trying new tricks will draw in a more mature audience. Though anything but obviously overgrown boys hovering unemployed in basements, the Duplass brothers are still finding themselves, in a good way. Far from honing a certain pleasing shtick, they seem bent on using their methods and characters to different ends each time.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home went into limited release March 16, 2012. It opens in the UK and Ireland May 11.

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