I never thought I'd use the phrase "magically precious" at all, much less as a non-pejorative. Yet, this particular descriptor fits the new film by Mark and Jay Duplass, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, surprisingly well. And in all the right ways.
Muppets-man Jason Segel stars as the titular Jeff, a pothead who, as the qualifier suggests, lives in his mother's basement. Jeff and his brother Pat (Ed Helms, The Hangover) lost their father when they were teenagers, and both chose completely different paths for how to deal with the tragedy. Pat has settled into adulthood, surrounding himself with the trappings of perceived "success." This means his priorities are screwed up, and he's more devoted to his new Porsche than he is his floundering marriage to Linda (Judy Greer, The Descendants). He's got a stick up his butt the size of a telephone pole.
Jeff, on the other hand, lit up and chilled out. Permanently. The film opens with a quote from him about how everything that happens in the world is connected, and then cuts to Jeff dictating his theories about the movie Signs into a tape recorder. Following his morning bong hit, he receives a misplaced phone call for someone named Kevin. Jeff doesn't know anyone named Kevin, but if his philosophy prevails, by the end of the day, he will.
And, indeed, Jeff meets more than one Kevin before the end of the film. The first is random guy he sees on the bus. His mother, Sharon (an earthy, emotional Susan Sarandon), has sent him on an errand to Home Depot. It's her birthday and all she wants is for Jeff to fix a broken shutter. This small mission will lead to Jeff having a big day. He will run into Pat, and together, they will discover that Pat's marital problems are bigger than he thinks. Every new encounter on their journey will seemingly confirm Jeff's personal belief, each step taken leading to the next and pushing them toward...well, something. Call it destiny, if you will. Regardless, it will of course involve Pat loosening up and Jeff getting it together.
The Duplass Brothers first made their name through their quirky, self-financed indies (The Puffy Chair, Baghead), but have since transitioned into something closer to mainstream fare. (Mark Duplass has also become a pretty strong character actor, including a regular role on FX's The League.) I felt their last directorial effort, Cyrus, tried a little too hard to strain against surrendering to their success, and so the oddball relationship stuff struck me as forced. I find no such problems with Jeff, Who Lives at Home. On the contrary, I think their script finds a nice balance between their particular brand of whimsy and a winning sincerity, making for a movie that is both smarter and more emotionally honest than most standard comedies, but also less self-involved than is common in the directorial team's mumblecore roots. Even cinematographer Jas Shelton has dialed down the shaky roaming and intrusive zooms that made Cyrus an annoying paean to motion sickness.
By settling down and focusing on what is happening rather than letting how it is happening overtake the narrative, Mark and Jay allow for a lithe tone that is utterly essential to Jeff, Who Lives at Home working. In more labored hands, either to one side or the other, the unbelievable coincidences would seem ludicrous. Instead, the chain of events seems natural and even, dare I say, logical. It's also very funny. You will laugh regularly and loudly.
This delicate trick is perfectly aided in its execution by the excellent ensemble. Segel and Helms make an exquisite team, each playing to type but altering their takes just enough to make the performances unique. Segel is, as per usual, a big and lovable lug, but with an underlying melancholy; likewise, Helms is starchy and a bit of a nerd, but he's also more of an asshole than his more innocent character on The Office. Susan Sarandon is, no surprise, fantastic as the mother. The Duplass boys smartly give her a complete B-story rather than limiting her to being a nag that exists only to serve the plot. While her sons run around town getting into trouble, Sharon finds herself in a sweetly rendered courtship. A secret admirer in her office is sending her flirty instant messages, and the older woman has to conquer her insecurities to roll with that particular flow.
All of the various pieces here converge in a finale that is both a tearjerker and a rousing validation of our investment in the story and its characters. The epiphanies that have occurred along the way are put to the test and frayed connections are repaired in a way that manages to be sentimental without being manipulative or mawkish. Thus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home sends the viewer out of the theater in a better mood than he or she entered. Which should be the goal of any comedy, even the dark ones. That is the real power of laughter, and it's why Jeff, Who Lives at Home is, indeed, so magically precious.