With their fourth film, Mark and Jay Duplass (Cyrus) achieve the seemingly impossible. Against all odds, they’ve managed to make a comedy that harnesses the considerable talents of Jason Segel and Ed Helms, but never quite gets around to being funny.
Segel at first appears to play a variation on the character that helped establish his reputation in Knocked Up — a doofus slacker in a long-term relationship with his bong. But then things take a turn for the cosmic. Or, possibly, the clinical.
Jeff is 30, lives in the basement of his mother’s (Susan Sarandon) home and has watched his copy of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs so many times he’s become obsessed with the idea that everything in the universe is connected. He believes destiny has a grand plan for him and that it’s his duty to put everything else aside and be constantly on the lookout for clues to the shape fate will take.
Despite his drawing life lessons from Mel Gibson, Jeff seems harmless enough. Not a particularly original or entertaining creation, but a vaguely likable man-child. When he answers the phone one day and a voice asks to speak with Kevin, we aren’t surprised that such a small thing launches him on an existential quest (“What if there are no wrong numbers?”) We’re just surprised that quest ultimately covers such familiar ground.
While their principal character may have Signs on the brain, the fraternal filmmakers — who also wrote the script — give the impression of having watched 2008’s Step Brothers a few too many times. Like the mother in that movie, Sarandon’s Sharon is defined by two qualities: She’s looking for love and growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of ambition displayed by her resident Peter Pan.
Like both of Step Brothers’ middle-aged boys, Jeff is oblivious to the ridiculousness of his situation. He feels entitled rather than grateful. When his mother calls from her cubicle and pleads with him to repair a single slat in a kitchen shutter as a birthday gift to her, he whines, “Mom, I’m kind of busy here!”
And, just as there was in Step Brothers, there is a more successful older sibling who happens to be a dick. Helms is squandered in the ill-conceived role of Pat, a paint salesman who improbably purchases a Porsche with the money he and his wife (Judy Greer) saved for a house and then is mystified to learn that his marriage may be on the rocks.
I don’t mean to suggest the filmmakers have borrowed all the themes and ideas in Jeff, Who Lives at Home from Step Brothers. They borrow from lots of other slacker movies, too. And I don’t mean to suggest that their latest is absolutely entertainment free.
As Jeff spends a day following the trail of Kevin-related signs, coincidences and clues from one end of his hometown to the other, certain aspects of his adventure made me smile. I don’t believe I laughed once, but I probably smiled half a dozen times — for example, when Segel shoehorns his oversized frame into the front seat of the sports car. “You’re a Sasquatch,” marvels Helms.
The final act is another matter. The tone lurches from mumblecore to magic realism without warning, as events take a turn for the supernatural that’s certain to divide viewers. Some will find it inspirational. Others will reject it as shamelessly contrived. Count me with the latter.
Segel turns in a finely calibrated performance, it’s briefly interesting to watch Helms play slightly against type and Sarandon brings an aching quality to her underwritten role. One or two of the plot’s developments contain trace amounts of invention. But, at the end of the day, I have to say I found myself wishing Jeff had just stayed home.