Ostensible mumblecore throwback Jeff Who Lives At Home is currently available on Blu-ray from Paramount, featuring Ed Helms and Jason Segel as estranged brothers struggling to reconnect in the painfully prolonged wake of a decades-old family tragedy. Jeff’s stylistic affiliations, strong cast, and stripped-down, poetically meandering narrative are charming and sweet, but the movie fails to penetrate deeply enough into the motivations of its characters, stylistically or otherwise, to be truly provocative or unique.
Jeff (Segel) and Pat (Helms) are estranged adult brothers living in the same small town who are forced rudely back into each other’s lives by a series of unfortunate mishaps and misunderstandings. Jeff, as the film’s title indicates, lives with their mother, Sharon (Sarandon), and has become obsessed with the concept of fate, and the idea of deterministic “signs” that will direct him toward his life’s ultimate destiny. Pat, meanwhile, is trapped in a bitter and passive-aggressive marriage with Linda (Judy Greer), whom he begins to suspect is having an affair. Sharon, meanwhile, is locked resolutely into an impersonal and soul-sucking office job, the milieu of which is upended abruptly when she begins receiving mysterious instant messages from an anonymous secret admirer.
Driven from his basement sanctuary by Sharon on a mad quest for wood glue, Jeff immediately allows himself to become sidetracked by a series of portentous coincidences into which he characteristically reads transcendent cosmic meaning. Prodded to intervene by Sharon, Pat instead finds both himself and Jeff swept up in a chain of cataclysmic accidents, which plunge Pat’s entire sense of personal identity and security into turmoil, and force both brothers to confront the respective choices they have made about how to conduct their lives.
The short-lived mumblecore subgenre’s awkwardly sweet, unrehearsed stylistic approach relied on freeform shooting and editing, combined with impromptu-style delivery and naturalistic plotting. Jeff has these qualities superficially in spades, but at its core, it’s so obsessed with generic truisms and overweening concepts about predestination that its functional framing, choppy editing, and cheerfully jerky camera movements end up feeling arbitrary and hollow. It’s not a terrible film, but its narrative choices and stylistic approach fail to really jibe with each other, resulting in a nagging feeling of ultimate dissatisfaction. The film’s fundamental premise – that events are predetermined, everything happens for a reason, and all that’s necessary for personal fulfillment is to surrender to the influence of fate – is problematic and unsatisfying as well, particularly in a film that pretends to be interested in exploring how small daily choices can powerfully affect relationships over the long term.
Paramount’s disc contains nothing but the movie and a lot of alternate language tracks, which seems odd considering its formidable cast. The movie’s actually not bad if you don’t think about it too hard, it just isn’t groundbreaking or particularly memorable aside from the strength of its performances, which are solidly endearing and funny across the board. The real problem with the movie is its lack of a unified objective – ironic, considering how unnecessarily structured it often feels – resulting in a film which is sweet, but unfortunately derivative and unmemorable.