Despite the fact that the phenomenon of “boomerang kids” in their 20s coming back home to live with their parents after college has become ever-more-normal during the current recession, it’s still considered a vicious put-down to tell some anonymous online poster, “I bet you still live in your mother’s basement.” However unfairly, that character remains contemporary American culture’s apotheosis of the Loser: the unmotivated, unemployed stoner who rarely emerges from his mildewy lair, spending hour after hour watching movies or playing computer games.
Given the dismal track record of recent “dumb buddy” movies attempting to make comic hay from the stereotype of potty-mouthed, immature males, I wasn’t really expecting to like Jeff Who Lives at Home at all. But the indie film by Jay and Mark Duplass was getting good buzz from festivals, so I thought that I’d grit my teeth and give it a try. Surprise, surprise: This tale of an unemployed 30-year-old who lives in his mother’s basement, getting high and looking for clues about his destiny like those in his favorite science fiction movie, Signs, actually turns out to be a rather charming piece of work in the picaresque tradition.
Part of what makes Jeff Who Lives at Home palatable, and even successful, where others of its ilk are not is the casting of Jason Segel as the title character. There’s something about this hapless-but-harmless Jeff that makes you want to give him a hug and make him breakfast, instead of running screaming for the hills from that irritating guy you thought you’d left behind permanently when you got your baccalaureate.
As our story begins, Jeff hears a vitamin commercial on TV suggesting that he “just pick up the phone and start a new chapter in your life.” It’s exactly the sort of random “clue” to which he is prone to pay close attention; and sure enough, within moments his phone rings. It’s a wrong number seeking someone named Kevin, and over the course of the next day or two, Jeff will allow the pursuit of a succession of Kevins to determine his fate – with most surprising consequences.
It happens to be the birthday of Jeff’s indulgent mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon, luminous as ever), and the only thing that she wants from her slacker son is that he venture out of his underground den long enough to buy some wood glue and a new slat to fix a louver door. So he heads forth into the daylit world, but is quickly sidetracked as the first of the day’s Kevins crosses his path. Jeff’s humanity comes into sharp focus as that path converges with that of his brother Pat (Ed Helms), an unpleasant, sleazy manipulator. While the good-natured Jeff is helping little old ladies onto the bus, Pat is being passive/aggressive, precipitating a marital rift by buying a Porsche against his wife’s wishes (they are supposed to be saving up to buy a house and have kids).
The brothers join forces inadvertently as Pat emerges from a “business meeting” at Hooter’s and offers Jeff a ride in his new sportscar. In what will not be the last of a series of encounters so absurdly coincidental that they encroach upon the realm of magical realism, they spot Pat’s wife Linda (Judy Greer) on an apparent assignation with another man. I don’t need to tell you what becomes of the bad-karma-laden Porsche in the ensuing car chase.
Meanwhile, Sharon is having an interesting day at work, getting “secret admirer” e-mails from a co-worker. In a lunchtime huddle with her best buddy Carol (Rae Dawn Chong), she admits that she hasn’t had a boyfriend in the decade-plus since the death of her husband. (No wonder she can empathize with Jeff, who hasn’t had a girlfriend since college.) A lovely scene where she tries to set up a meeting by the water cooler with her anonymous beau, and ends up flirting awkwardly with the wrong guy, reminds us what a plus it is to have Sarandon on your team in the making of a “little” movie like this.
The two mismatched brothers spend the rest of that day and the next following the wayward wife and more people and things labeled Kevin around, sharing dreams, hugging at their father’s gravesite, scuffling and squabbling, until Pat finally falls into such despair over his crumbling marriage that he begins to suspend his disbelief in Jeff’s “signs.” The messy-but-sweet denouement brings all the key characters together in a huge traffic jam on a causeway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where a vehicle (owned, of course, by someone named Kevin) has plunged into the Mississippi.
The improbable way in which all the plot threads resolve themselves is a true pleasure to behold, and our feckless hero’s faith in his greater destiny ultimately finds a satisfying, if utterly unpredictable, reward. Jeff Who Lives at Home is a feel-good flick that’s worth a trip to the cinema – and you know, you really should get out of the house more.