Jason Segal is the best puppydog in American movies. He isn’t an actor so much as a genuinely nice guy who’s managed to wrangle a good living out of pretending to be versions of himself. He seems simply unable to play-act his way around the fact that his niceness is the natural extension of a kind of true-believer mentality that forces its way into every scene and line of dialogue he’s a part of. Without him, a movie like Jeff, Who Lives at Home wouldn’t work.
It’s the story of one day in the life of a Baton Rouge family. Segal is Jeff, who lives in his mother’s basement, doing nothing more than ripping bongs and contemplating the myriad intricacies of life. His brother Pat (Ed Helms) seems, by the monogram on his dress shirt, to manage a retail paint store and turns out to have all of the passion and creativity that that would indicate; the beginning and end of his contemplations have to do with the options on his new Porsche. Pat is married to Linda (Judy Greer), and they aren’t getting along. Pat isn’t quite aware enough of himself to see that his marriage is lost, until he and Jeff, who’ve found themselves unwittingly piecing together the clues of a cosmic mystery, stumble on Linda having lunch with a strange man at an upscale restaurant.
The day is also their mother’s birthday, though Pat and Jeff are far too preoccupied with their own issues to have planned anything for her. The mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), works in a cubicle at some small company and becomes too preoccupied for her own birthday when she finds she has a secret admirer who seems bent on stringing her along through instant messaging.
Sharon and her boys will meet up unexpectedly, as people tend to do in movies about coincidence. But the day-in-the-life plot unfolds unlike most movies intent on graphing out a single dawn-to-dusk period. Directors Mark and Jay Duplass, who’ve thankfully moved past the mumblecore genre they helped found, haven’t much stylistic flare beyond random camera zooms and the occasional slow-motion kiss, but they have a casual editing rhythm that, along with Segal’s innocence, makes the movie sympathetic as hell. There is an equal combination of stretch and elision, sap and poetry, all of it meant to underline the basic beliefs of Jeff, whose thoughts about destiny are undeniably the Duplass’ as well. When Pat, Linda, and Sharon come together at the precipice of a cliff, huddling together to find out what exactly Jeff is doing below them, it’s because of a series of coincidences that are obvious, funny, and oddly believable. It’s not just that the Duplass’ allow us to laugh at the improbability, but that none of the short cuts they’ve concocted are too far from everyday life. Jeff believes wholeheartedly that they are meaningful, while Pat — who is served the movie’s main lesson — is far too simplistic a person to give them much credence. But all of Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a soft-spoken argument against such simplicity and a defense of the kind of wandering, lay-philosophical slant on life that Jeff, and by all indications Segal himself, has settled into.