Family ties

Family ties

Film by brothers about brothers goes deeper than you expect

By Tim Pompey 03/22/2012

Jeff Who Lives at Home
Directed by Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer  
Rated R for language, including sexual references, and some drug use
1 hr. 23 mins.


I love a small film that brings a different slant to a story. For example, Jeff Who Lives at Home is a movie (directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass) about brothers. What’s more, the two seem to take their inspiration from another set of film brothers, the Coens, though the Duplass films are much more low-key and gentle.


In this, they take on the stress and rivalry between younger brother Jeff (Jason Segal), who is 30 and lives in his mother’s basement, and older brother Pat (Ed Helms), who’s done everything responsibly in his life but still feels unappreciated.


Yet these brothers share something in common. They’re both emotionally lost. Jeff is searching for some sense of direction. Pat, whose dreams and marriage have gone cold, wants to put a little juice back in his life.


Sharon (Susan Sarandon) is the mother who is stuck between these two. She just wants Jeff to get off his ass, go to Home Depot and fix a slat on her closet door. And then maybe, just maybe, get a job and move out.


The film reveals a day in the life of each character. Jeff gets an accidental phone call asking for someone named Kevin. Pat buys a Porsche without telling his wife. Sharon gets an e-mail at work from a secret admirer. All unconnected events — and yet not.


As the story develops, the characters find their lives interacting and overlapping with each other, building toward a singular climax in which they all find themselves on the same bridge looking down at a horrific car accident. How they arrive there is the fun of the film.


On the surface, the Duplass brothers write and direct comedies. Look closer, however, and you’ll find they are far more dramatic in their storylines than any preview might hint.


Here, they explore a family that has been torn by a father’s death. Each family member has taken a different path through the grief. Jeff has withdrawn to his mother’s basement. Pat has buried his grief in testosterone. Sharon has separated herself from romance and sex. And yet, they are still family, still trying to interact with each other.


Segal breaks from his usual broad comedy and successfully explores the struggling soul of Jeff. Using a spare approach, he plays Jeff as a slacker who is not without profound insight. Yes, he lives in his mother’s basement and smokes lots of pot, but he’s not beyond hope. He’s trying to make sense out of his chaotic thoughts. He’s waiting for a sign.


Helms also grabs this opportunity to step away from his usual numbskull shtick and take on a man who is damaged and grieving. His hard-charging approach reflects a desire similar to Jeff’s. He wants to renew his soul. The fact that he buys a Porsche is only symptomatic of a more urgent crisis: he’s dying inside.


What’s interesting is how brothers and mother seem purposefully connected, even if they’re flying apart. There’s a bigger force at play here that pulls them back together. The randomness of events seems to contain a plan for them.

The accidents in their lives are part of an active, creative universe.


The brothers Duplass have turned this chaos into a film that’s quietly insightful, honest and often funny. Using direct, sometimes brutal dialogue, they’ve taken a small family story and given it a shot in the arm. While the ending may be a bit too sentimental for some, the journey taken is time well spent.


Maybe these brothers really do understand what brotherhood and sisterhood require. Happiness in life doesn’t depend on following signs, or buying a Porsche, or getting laid. As Stephen Hawking once said, “All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

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