Filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass come from microbudget, so-called mumblecore origins, but Jeff, Who Lives at Home is their second mainstream release (after Cyrus). Even though the Duplasses now have a modest budget and veritable movie stars in the mix, their approach is still loose and amateur-looking. So while it's never much to look at, its cheap exterior holds the vague promise that Jeff might be a personal, idiosyncratic movie. But the Duplasses capitulate to formula and play by a simplistic rule of Screenwriting 101: Most people want something specific, and their lives are littered with obstacles in the way of their precise desires.
Jeff's brother Pat (Ed Helms) wants to drive a Porsche and reconnect with his wife, Linda (Judy Greer), who wants Pat to make more of an effort in their marriage. Jeff's mom (Susan Sarandon) wants to kiss someone under a waterfall, and Jeff (Jason Segel) wants to figure out why he keeps hearing and seeing the name Kevin everywhere.
Jeff chases the name Kevin—on the back of a jersey, on the side of a truck—all around Baton Rouge. He has a fortuitous run-in with Pat, and then they cross paths with Linda and follow her. These are not the first or last of the many coincidences that hold up the story like so many wobbly stilts. This feeling of narrative order tames the would-be anarchy of what could have been a sillier, and better, comedy. This movie needs more scenes like the priceless one of Jeff, six-four and 200 pounds, standing up through the sunroof of Pat's tiny Porsche, navigating as they chase Linda through the streets of the city.
The chaos of these more enjoyable scenes suits the Duplasses' lack of aesthetic much better than their focus on harmony and meaning. This is their fourth film, and their dismissal of thoughtful camera work is starting to seem aggressive. Mastery of craft is not a prerequisite for masterful work—another pair of filmmaker brothers, underground heroes the Kuchars (Hold Me While I'm Naked), are great evidence of this—but in combination with the grade-school philosophizing, the dinky visuals make Jeff, Who Lives at Home feel like kids' stuff.
The coincidences are not just plot devices: They're foregrounded, the very subject, as Jeff takes them as evidence of the connectivity of the universe. But as this idea of oneness, played out and impossible to read benevolently, takes center stage, the characters move to the periphery. Jeff, Pat, their mom and Linda are plugged into various schemata and filled in with obligatory color. Helms plays Pat as an immature square, obnoxious and less successful than he thinks he is, a simplistic characterization similar to his Andy on The Office. Sarandon provides a small spark occasionally, but let's face it, she's slumming it here. It feels more like a star cameo in a TV show than a performance. Jeff's attitude and philosophy are vague—he's the rough idea of someone who smokes weed and watches Signs a lot, not a unique character who happens to smoke weed and watch Signs a lot. The mean-spirited visual joke that introduces him sets up the Duplasses' distance from their main character.
A generous reading of the end of the movie might suggest that there's ambiguity in Jeff—Pop-Tart in hand—and the way he is satisfied with everything literally fitting into place. But it doesn't do anything to make up for the way the Duplasses subordinate style and compassion in the service of trite ideas and neat storytelling. The pieces fit conveniently together, but when the puzzle is so easy, that's not much of an accomplishment.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Forever teenaged."