Jason Segel is Jeff, a thirty-something jobless stoner still living with his mother and lazily waiting around for his true calling. His opening monologue has plenty of potential. He doesn't just love M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, he thinks the movie is speaking directly to his soul, calling him into action, guiding him towards the universe's signals. This is all before it cuts to reveal him sitting on the toilet, and then makes the well worn journey back to the TV and couch, and where his bong lies. Jeff's little opening mantra, like the film's soundtrack, contains the right amount of whimsy to rope the audience into rooting for him - we're waiting for the beat to pick up, for him to finally break into a run. But the rest of the character is thinly drawn. Segel is familiar with the role - he made mid-life loserville look effortless in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where he was so defeated even his capacity for self-pity was all but extinguished. But here even his laziness is lazy. He might look the part with the sullen stare, rolled shoulders, and an entire wardrobe comprised of baggy hoodies, but there is little personality beyond the intro. Where is the lived-in monotony, of a bong hit so familiar that it stings? Jeff is told to go outside for an errand, and he meekly abides, swinging his arms and peering curiously at the sun. It's a casual sketch of a recluse. His hazy, misguided motivations ring true; we recognise that he is more in love with the idea of destiny's calling than actually getting off the couch. It works too, until he just walks out anyway.
Along the way he bumps into his more conventionally successful brother, and the Duplasses' intent is to gradually reveal how similar their plights really are. We recognise that almost instantly anyway from Ed Helms' hapless performance, and seeing how dismally his wardrobe reflects his priorities: he goes through the entire film in his work uniform, and with the dismissive demeanour of a bullying manager. There's no charm in the role, and we shift uncomfortably as he tries to smoothly play off a surprise splurge on a sports car, but ends up looking pathetic instead. Pat is a loser, although a different kind from his brother. But like a bad Alexander Payne, the film doesn't know when to stop bashing its characters, until we're past the dark humour and into plain sad territory. It goes all the way, only to let them off easy after all. Greer's dialogue has a way of cutting right into the heart of Pat's patent narcissism and past all his self-aggrandising bullsh*t, and it's a wonder she is still there to accept him into her loving arms at the end. The Duplasses fight Jeff's theory of placing himself at the centre of the universe by well, placing him at the centre of the universe, making a big, melodramatic show of him jumping into the river and pulling off a heroic deed. The women, in comparison, seem to exist in the real world. We're touched by Sarandon's weary, middle-aged musings on her missed opportunities because she is someone we all recognise or even occupied. She was supposed to be in the peace corp, tending to a gang of adorable orphans, and in her regret she mixes a little self-awareness in there, as if she fully realises just how naive that youthful, self-gratifying fantasy really was.
By far the most annoying aspect of the film is its style. Call it mumblecore, indie, low-budget, whatever - no label can hides how unmotivated and nauseous it is here. The Duplasses' favoured technique are those jarring, jerking half zooms, which don't serve any apparent compositional purpose, but simply appear to yell in the viewer's ear and loudly proclaim its authenticity. While mockumentary shows such as Modern Family and The Office fully embrace the camera's fly-on-the- wall presence, as if their everyday zaniness has to be seen to be believed, Jeff, Who Lives at Home throws it in as a stylistic commitment it can't pull off. It wants to be real, but not too real. It has the neat, bow-wrapped ambitions and comedic situations well tread by the twenty minute sitcom, but ends up dragging out its philosophy into something far more pretentious. It might just be some wood glue, but the implication is life-changing.