As surreal as it is to see a micro-budget Duplass Brothers film start with the stars and mountainous terrain of the Paramount logo, in many ways that contradiction and clash sets the tone for their new comedy "Jeff Who Lives at Home." Strange things are afoot in the cosmos as Jeff (played with affable confusion and large-framed, good-hearted charm by Jason Segel) is trying to keep his eyes open for what the universe might be telling him, in terms of his destiny and purpose. Also, his mom Sharon (Susan Sarandon) would like it if he could get his ass off the couch in her basement and go to Home Depot to get wood glue to fix a broken pantry door slat …
It's that mix of the big and small, the micro-to-macro zoom of the plot and themes, that makes "Jeff Who Lives at Home" as appealing as it is. Co-writers and co-directors Jay and Mark Duplass specialize in social discomfort (see "Cyrus") and long takes of awkward social anxiety, and while that still applies here -- when Jeff's brother Pat (Ed Helms) tries to rationalize the purchase of a Porsche to his long-suffering wife Linda (Judy Greer), the laughs and cringes come in equal measure -- there's also something intangibly kind about the film.
The interconnectedness of all things and the nature of destiny are tough pitches for comedy -- philosophy and pratfalls often don't mix especially well -- but as Jeff deals with his odyssey for wood glue and Sharon is confronted by a secret admirer and Pat discovers Linda has things she wants too, the movie becomes a philosophical comedy. It's all in the vein of (if not quite at the level of) "Groundhog Day," combining the Jungian idea of there being no coincidences and the Zen idea of being present to see the universe unfolding through those non-coincidences. The film takes place in a world that runs as if cause and effect took a couple of bong hits, and then got confused about which of them was supposed to do something and in what order.
Segel's large, befuddled demeanor serves him well here -- Helms at one point refers to him as 'a sasquatch,' and we laugh not only because it is unkind but also because it's what we've all been thinking. For all of the film's bigger broader bits -- from Segel being drafted by a pickup basketball game, to an automotive disaster, to Helms doing the least subtle tail job ever captured on film -- there are nice small moments here too, like Sarandon trying to dissuade a secret admirer over IM ("I'm old and I'm getting flabby …") or the play of confusion and realization across Segel's face repeatedly throughout. The cinematography, by Jas Shelton, relies on sudden shifts and zooms to re-set perspective, and you soon settle into the same rhythm as the film, where quick realizations mean fast changes of thought.
The climax of 'Jeff' will be argued over by the film's fans -- is it a too-big moment that punctures the amiability and shaggy-dog realism of the story thus far, or is it the ultimate point of what's gone before? This writer is in the latter camp, but either way it's worth noting that the climax -- spoken of in broad, none-too-specific terms -- is a quantum leap forward for the brothers Duplass in terms of technical resources and scale of filmmaking -- no, they won't be making a sequel to "The Fast and the Furious" anytime soon, but compared to the small-room scale of their earlier works "The Puffy Chair" and "Cyrus," "Jeff Who Lives at Home" feels like "Avatar."
In the denoument, the film doesn't suddenly break your heart, but, rather, it suddenly heals it -- with a moment of such delicacy and sincerity that you feel lucky to witness it. Human and heartfelt filmmaking is rare at any level of the industry, and even rarer in comedy -- but the Duplass brothers manage to get laughs without resorting to cheap tricks or broad flailing. So many indie directors brush against big-studio Hollywood and get shattered by it -- Justin Lin with "Annapolis," Kevin Smith with "Mallrats." But "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" brings big-studio moviemaking and big-name stars to the Duplass brothers, embracing their sensibilities and style without smothering them, and we in the audience benefit. [B+]