Comma Chameleon: the Duplass brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2012) – DVD review
Mumblecore flirts with mainstream – not exactly a chance meeting, but one that highlights the importance of film genres getting out of the house occasionally.
Jeff, Who Lives At Home
(Jay and Mark Duplass, 2012)
If Jeff, Who Lives At Home was a big Hollywood film, it would be easy to imagine it descending into mawkish magic realism. But there’s something about the Duplass brothers’ mumblecore-trained sensibility that keeps schmaltz at bay. If anything, the film’s unusual atmosphere is exactly the product of this meeting of mainstream and indie – a head-on collision between engineered whimsy and laidback observation.
The story concerns Jeff (Jason Segel), a thirty-year-old slacker so obsessed with M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs that he uses it as basis for a ‘see what comes’ philosophy to life. The irony is that a film requires more weight and structure to its character journey, and so the film becomes a wry commentary on the use of causality – call it Fate – in movies. Nothing happens by chance, and to be honest, the chain of coincidences and unexpected meetings in Jeff, Who Lives At Home is as rigorously plotted as any farce. Yet it doesn’t feel like it, because the Duplass brothers deploy the style of mumblecore – casual camera placement, improvised dialogue – to give the story the freewheeling sense that things are happening by chance.
The joy is that – precisely because of this double-edged awareness of artifice and naturalism – the film avoids the risk of showing belief in cosmic coincidence or Divine intervention. The film is scrupulous about the fact that every event is caused by a decision made by Jeff or his brother, Pat. One is a pot-head quite content to drift through his day, the other a prissily self-important professional in denial about how unhappy he’s become – yet both are plagued by the same rash spontaneity, and have more in common than they realise. Even as he denies the Signs rationale, Pat involuntarily acts on it because, frankly, that’s life.
And with it, the title clicks into focus. The comma is important because this isn’t just a story about Jeff but Jeff, Who Lives At Home. The sub-clause defines him, and it stretches beyond the title character until you mentally add character descriptions to everyone: Pat, Who Doesn’t Realise He’s A Prick; his girlfriend Linda, Who Is Unhappy In Her Relationship; Jeff and Pat’s mom Sharon, Who Isn’t Quite Ready To Get Old. These labels stick when people stay in one position for too long, and the film is a case study in the importance of change. “Fate,” for what it’s worth, isn’t some mysterious property; it’s inevitable once a character shrugs off stasis. That’s why, after setting the scene about Jeff’s home living in record time, the Duplasses make sure he spends the vast majority of the story out in the open.
The same applies to the acting. On paper, this looks like a film assembled by the world’s laziest casting director. Jason Segel, Who Specialises In Slackers. Ed Helms, Who Can Do The Tight-Ass In His Sleep. Susan Sarandon, Who Is Obligatory As The Mom In A Quirky Comedy. Yet the freshness of the directorial approach enlivens the performances. Everybody is visibly energised by the opportunity to improvise, and their escape from stereotype mirrors the characters’ own journeys.