Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Jeff (Jason Segel) and his brother Pat (Ed Helms) are both drifting through life, and, in the Duplass brothers’ latest comedy, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, their respective purposelessness is set against a backdrop question: is there some sense of cosmic order to this life? At first glance, Jeff’s aimless existence is more obvious. He’s 30 years old, jobless, and living in his mother’s basement. Leaving the couch might be considered his activity for the day. And, yet, the film opens with Jason confessing his love for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film, Signs. Between relieving himself and taking bong hits, Jeff explains that he believes in the interconnectedness of things, and that he looks for hidden meaning beneath coincidences.
In certain ways, Pat is wholly unlike his brother who lives at home. He’s married, has a job, and has his own apartment. This contrast with his brother enables Pat to treat Jeff with a self-righteous disdain. But we quickly see that Pat is drifting in his own way: his marriage is a wreck, partly because he is an insensitive, contemptible jerk, and partly because he’s recklessly irresponsible with his money. While his wife, Linda (Judy Greer), is pinching pennies so they can soon move into a house, Pat makes a surprise breakfast to let her know that he bought a brand new Porsche on a whim. This ill-received news only accelerates his marital problems.
Both Jeff and Pat are irresponsible, but in such a way that they are opposite sides of the same coin. Jeff believes there is some sort of cosmic meaning to his existence, but he’s too busy waiting for it to happen to him to take responsibility for his life and participate in that essential purpose — whatever it may be. On the other hand, Pat is active with his life, but with little concern as to what ultimate purpose or cosmic meaning might govern his decision making. What we soon learn is that a source of the brothers’ respective forms of paralyzed responsibility is that their father died unexpectedly when they were mere teenagers. And the implication, it seems, is that a significant loving example was lost.
What unfolds, then, is the coincidental coalescence between Jeff leaving home to run an errand for his mother and following the incidental signs, and his brother coming to find that his marital problems are even worse than he could have imagined. While Jeff’s incidental “signs” do lead to fitting results and what might be described as a feel-good ending, none of it is taken too seriously. In fact, Jeff’s initial hunch leads to quite a meaningful beat-down — meaningful as in, wake up and start being sensible. The early reference to Signs functions well mostly toward driving the film’s comedy. That the film undermines “Coincidence as Meaningful Fate” with consistent reference to Jeff’s arrested development is what makes it work.
In other words, the Duplass brothers use the Signs mold ironically, constantly winking at us in order to make a finer point. For instance, I have to disagree with Roger Ebert’s criticism of the directors’ use of quick in-and-out zoom camera shots. While Ebert’s right that these usually signify a “whoa” moment, he sees their recurrence in this film as a miscalculated overuse. But I’m not sure he recognizes a possible intention of the constant “whoa” camera zooms. I found their purpose comedic in that the shots mirror Jeff’s quirky worldview. He sees every chance incident as a potential “whoa” moment. This is how he sees “reality,” and while it did get a bit tiresome, for much of the film’s duration, it was rather humorous, if quirky — kind of like Jeff.
More prevalent than the chance intersection between Jeff, Pat, and their mother is the theme that they have a responsibility to love one another and others in the respective ways they’ve been falling miserably short of doing. Responsibility involves both participation in, and recognition of, a larger order — not one or the other. Pat soon recognizes that he needs to not just be in a marriage, but, rather, he needs to pursue his marriage with a purposeful love. While on the surface it might seem Jeff’s philosophizing proved prescient, one must pay attention to the bookends of his story: it began when he finally left the house (and the couch), and found resolution most fully when he completed the simple errand his mother had asked of him.
What we find in Jeff, Who Lives at Home is that the interconnectedness of things is not so much about pursuing randomness: it’s about participating in the gift of existence by lovingly giving of ourselves to one another. That’s when the connections start to happen, and they prove all the more satisfying when what seems like chance is revealed as the surest love we could know.