Feckless 30-year-old Jeff Thompkins (Jason Segel), a firm believer in synchronicity, heads out on a mission to buy some wood glue for his long-suffering mother (Susan Sarandon), only to become embroiled in the marital breakdown of his brother (Ed Helms) and sister-in-law (Judy Greer).
The Duplass brothers’ last film, Cyrus, assembled a cast of capable and highly watchable actors – John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener – and threw them into a partly-improvised story about a divorcee whose designs on a sexy single mom are stymied by her stay-at-home son. This time around, the cast is in place, but the deliberately bare-bones plot fails to coalesce into anything resembling a satisfying story.
The oddball title (doesn’t everyone live ‘at home’?) suggests that Jeff is someone who really should have flown the nest by now, and so it proves: as played by Segel, Jeff is a lanky, unemployed man-child seemingly straight out of the Judd Apatow repertory company, of which Segel is a founder member. After an impassioned and amusing monologue about the staggering profundity of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, Jeff becomes obsessed with the significance of a phone call asking for someone named ‘Kevin’ (“What if there are no wrong numbers?” he muses, cod-philosophically), leading him to abandon his wood glue mission to seek out this mysterious ‘Kevin’ – and, by extension (he hopes), his destiny. Bumping into his exasperated brother Pat by chance – or is it!!?? – Jeff seems to stumble onto his new purpose. But what is it? Proving that his brother’s wife is having an affair? Or something more significant?
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is one of those films that introduces characters you enjoy spending time with – Segel is well within his comfort zone as the lovable lug, while Helms is effective as a petty, prissy asshole – but ultimately finds little to do with them, rewarding the audience’s investment with… well, not a lot. When it isn’t trying to out-zany a French farce, the film meanders as aimlessly as its protagonist, leading to a deus ex machina dénouement which feels contrived and atypically ‘Hollywood’. (It might even draw a few tears.) The fact that it requires a substantial subplot about Sarandon’s secret admirer to fill out its 82-minute running time suggests storytellers who are, hopefully only temporarily, running on empty. Oh, and fellas? That seasick-inducing, 24-style camera work has got to stop.
There’s undoubtedly comedy mileage in an irreverent sending up the Signs/Magnolia school of everything-is-connected philosophy. Despite the calibre of the cast, the Duplass brothers mostly fail to find it.