It’s a startling moment when Jeff Who Lives at Home opens with actor Jason Segel dictating to a tape recorder the meaning of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs — not so much because it’s a tight close-up, but because we’re not used to seeing such sad desperation and confusion on the face of the perpetually and endearingly goofy Segel.
It sets the tone perfectly for the story that plays out behind it, a charming, whimsical, and (thankfully) non-twee comedy from mumblecore filmmaker brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair).
Segel plays Jeff, an unmarried, unemployed, and unkempt 30-year-old who spends his days in his mother’s basement getting stoned and looking for a cosmic sign to point out his destiny. His widowed mother (Susan Sarandon) arguably does the same from within the cubicle of her mundane office job, while his self-centered brother Pat (Ed Helms) is busy finishing off his wilting marriage to wife Linda (Judy Greer).
Jeff believes the universe is full of meaningful coincidences, and that if one is open to them he or she will experience that perfect moment of clarity. It’s not giving away too much to reveal that’s exactly what happens over the course of a single day in the life of Jeff and his family. The hows and whys are the treat.
Jeff isn’t a hard story to tell, but it is a hard one to tell properly. The brothers Duplass are savvy enough to hold back the sentimentality and cloying sweetness that less confident filmmakers often rely upon. Aside from some awkward camera zooms, they rely on understatement and a deadpan, naturalistic style, and are content to stand back and let the cast room to maneuver.
That ridiculously talented cast rises to the occasion, too, with Segel and Helms especially displaying strong chemistry together as they play out the complex bonds of and intense devotion and equally intense antagonism that often exist between brothers.