By Chris Stangl | Press Play April 19, 2012 at 9:03AM
A problem—if not the problem—with stoner comedies is that they tend to lack ambition. That is not simply, ha ha, that content follows topic, though it may be that the target audience is undemanding and easily entertained. So there is no great mystery as to why potheads are happy to see themselves caricatured as good-natured goobers. That's not inherently a bad thing. There is comedic potential aplenty in watching the zonked try to cope with basic tasks, and/or gawping at outlandish situations that would test even the straight of brain. Jeff, Who Lives At Home, the most recent effort from writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass, does not entirely break with this tradition. The shape of what Netflix terms "late night comedies" is to set potheads on a basic task or vague mission and let it spiral out of control as wooly perception and altered cognition yank them through strings of cartoonish absurdities. Now, some of these stories meander more than others, some films have more on their minds than munchies and giggles, but that's the drill, from Up In Smoke (1978) to Dazed and Confused (1993) to Friday (1995) to Smiley Face (2007) to Harold and Kumar Do a Thing (2004/08/11). For Jeff, Who Lives At Home that means sending its thirty-year-old pothead protagonist out of his mother's basement, ostensibly on an errand to buy wood glue for a broken shutterbut really in search of something like the meaning of life. It is in this concern with spiritual yearning that Jeff diverges from the pack: Jeff sees a world beset by mystical signals, and Jason Segel plays him as a big-hearted and hazy-headed Apatosaurus plodding through Baton Rouge on a vision quest. The illuminated trail of bread crumbs will brush against Jeff's brother, Pat (Ed Helms, in rabid asshole mode), whose shambolic marriage is in mid-collapse, and their mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon, giving good put-upon), who is feeling, of late, that life has passed her by.
Before we get too far afield, an assessment. Jeff, Who Lives At Home is fairly begging to be called "sweet," and tends toward pandering, cornball Apatow-esque Within-Every-Slob-a-Heart-of-Gold reassurances. Whether or not one has use for the Duplass brothers' wobbly, zero-discipline technique, they have stood their ground, trademark unmotivated micro-zooms intact, as they moved from backyard productions The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008) to larger-scale pictures boasting bona fide comedy stars and studio distribution. Appreciate it or find it nauseating, the style, such as it is, sort of works to convey the POV of a blurred mind snapping into occasional focus, particularly in early scenes as Jeff blazes up, and that's not supposed to be a backhanded compliment. If we indulge in some fuzzy, speculative thinking of our own, consider that, as the independent film boom of the early '90s bloated into the corporate-backed pseudo-indie debauch of the late millennium, the Sundance Picture became the indie equivalent of White Telephone cinema—award-magnetic, pre-sold, and bourgeoisie-approved. That might make early-'00s mumblecore a scruffy, apolitical analog to Italian neorealism. If mumblecore might be considered a "movement," it is a one without organization or manifestos in French cinejournals, but one striving for a de-glammed mopey slice-of-life naturalism in subject and form. What we have here and now, then, is not unlike the encroaching froth and bosomy movie stars that marked the shift to Neorealismo Rosa: the presence of Susan Sarandon heralds the emergence of Pink Mumblecore. (That’s an idea for a Trends In Early 21st Century Cinema paper that you can have for free!)
While the stoner comedy tends towards pointless shaggy dog tales, aesthetic indifference, and, most criminally, frequent un-funniness, they can provide a nice counterpoint to goal-driven Hollywood storytelling. Cases in point: The Big Lebowski (1998) and Signs (2002). A stoner comedy by default, but so much more, The Big Lebowski does The Long Goodbye (1973) one better or maybe backwards, as Joel and Ethan Coen lovingly satirize Raymond Chandler by ramping up the writer's excessive plot convolutions, widening the menagerie of eccentrics, and suggesting that the ideal detective for such a carnival would be as freewheeling and open-minded as possible: enter The Dude. As the plot twists, misfortunes and desperate motives of hardboiled fiction pile up, The Dude (another Jeff) shuffles through the maze with a head clouded by mother's-milky vodka, Good Shit, and sunshine. By the climax, the central kidnapping plot doesn't burn out so much as fade away. There was no kidnapping, no real ransom, and everyone was faking it but The Dude, whose tumbleweed approach to detective work indeed makes him the man for his time and place. He tries to focus on the clues, but they go up in smoke.
There is no central mystery in Jeff, Who Lives At Home, either—or there are mysteries, but they are small-scaled and life-sized: Is My Wife Having an Affair? (Pat), Who Is My Secret Admirer? (Sharon), What Is My Purpose In the Cosmic Plan? (Jeff). Still, Jeff is about clues. The manner in which these conflicts unfold and entwine depends on how characters divine meaning from the signals they are/aren't picking up. Thus, Pat spends the day stalking his wife, Linda (Judy Greer, fuming throughout, topped off with a showcase meltdown), with Jeff in tow, tracking her and following leads, and he confronts her pre-tryst, rather than trying to open healthier channels of communication. Sharon sits in her cubicle at work, feeling lonely, unfulfilled and, in a desperate moment, will say she "hates" her sons. Sharon is indeed being sent messages—anonymous Instant Messages and sailing paper airplanes containing flirty notes—and tries to sniff out the culprit. Jeff, meanwhile, sees every object, action and word as laden with portent. Blame M. Night Shyamalan.
When we meet Jeff, he is alone and giving a reverent monologue about the subtle beauties and comforting philosophy of Shyamalan's alien invasion/family drama/Twilight Zone thriller, Signs. A problem—if not the problem—with Signs is that it scoops together a mountain of frayed genre clichés and plot contrivances so lazy that they become outrageous, then expects surprise and blown minds from the audience when everything plays out exactly as expected. Will a priest who has lost his faith manage to find it again when he is splattered with a barrage of miracles? Gee, I dunno, man. If everything snaps into place, people are always where they need to be, everything is foreshadowed and no props go unused, is that evidence of God's Plan or does it simply show that God is a hack screenwriter? Signs is reverse-engineered in a way that is either disingenuous or dumb. As a primo example of how he reads the film, Jeff says his favorite character is the daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, who cannot manage to drink a whole glass of water, thus littering the house with half-full glasses, thus providing the means of destroying the hydrophobic aliens at the end. Another way to read this might be that a clumsy attempt at characterization by way of cutesy quirk leads to a nonsensical plot point that does not hold up under scrutiny. Anyhow, Spoiler Alert: Jeff, Who Lives At Home starts by spoiling the end of Signs.
As our hero hits the bong, an infomercial tells him to "pick up the phone" just as it rings. In Signs-land there are no wrong numbers, so when the belligerent caller asks for Kevin, Jeff follows a trail of Kevins—a basketball jersey, a candy truck—in search of destiny. Weed is particularly good at fostering this kind of augury-rich vision, at scrubbing the texturing from the Matrix avatars to show the code running the show. The problem is that weed is not good at spurring one to action, and tends to strip away necessary coping filters (psychedelics, of course, are even better for popping the top off the universe, the cons also magnified in force). The world's Jeffs might well receive revelation through spliff, television and Pop-Tart, but it has to be carried off the couch, out of Mom's basement, and into the world.
It's like the birds, you see? Jeff keeps looking at birds flying overhead, squinting serenely at those airborne souls that also rhyme, visually, with the paper plane aimed at his mother's heart, and with a helicopter he will see later. The film does not directly address the ultimate cheat of Signs, but provides a sort of balance to Shyamalan's sleight-of-hand. Jeff moves through a chain of coincidence with increasingly dramatic consequences, and in the climax achieves some traditional screen-ready heroism. His personal motivation may be in sign-hunting, but sometimes causality is completely mundane, and the most important sign read is simply that when there are rescue aircraft in the sky, someone is in trouble. Regardless of what one has just smoked, or opinions of mumbled-jumbled mysticism, what goes on in a good Tarot reading, dream analysis, or therapy session is not so different. When the characters in Jeff, Who Lives At Home open themselves to the Signs, their most important work is in making themselves receptive to signals given off by other people, and contemplating an open-ended set of symbols that reflect back on themselves. When one throws some light on the path, it becomes much easier to stay on track or choose to plot a new course. Where Shyamalan rubs his characters' faces in incontrovertible predestination, the Duplasses give their cast the freedom to act on such signals as they see fit, and soar or fail based on those choices.
Jeff is looking for a mission, but he seems to be missing the biggest sign. He already has a mission. His mother wants him to go to the hardware store. In a way, his mission is even smaller than Pat's quest to save his marriage, or Sharon's midlife sorta-crisis. In a scene at the heart of the film, Jeff and Pat stand in the cemetery where their father is buried. The brothers have had terrible days by any standard. Pat has crashed the new Porsche that he can't afford; Jeff has been beaten up and mugged. Both recall dreams in which their dad asks, "What is the greatest day in the history of the world?" Pat sees this as evidence of a forgotten, shared memory. Jeff sees synchronicity. Mysterious either way, no? They both have an opportunity here to remember the Invisible Father's message: today is the greatest day in the history of the world.
On this greatest of days, Jeff, who lives at home, will haul his ass out of the house, inadvertently heal his family relationships, and more. But what of the wood glue? Whether you can—or even want to—read the Signs or not, the Signs don't get any gluing done, no matter how high you are. The gentle joke of the title itself is that we do, indeed, all live at home. It's just that sometimes it takes a Jeff to recognize that. Do not wonder where your place is in the universe. You are in it right now.
Chris Stangl lives, writes, paints, draws comics, and drinks coffee in Los Angeles. Besides designing the Press Play logo, he has done sundry artwork for Meltdown Comics, The Steve Allen Theater, the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre, musician Old Man Charlie, and illustrated the humor book The Explosexuawesome Career Guide. He blogs on film and television at The Exploding Kinetoscope. Like all native Californians, he comes from Iowa.