When I first started writing reviews for New Raleigh, the original thought was that it would be mostly independent films being covered. Here’s the rub: most indies don’t receive proper releases anymore, with more and more figuring out that the real money is in offering their movies on cable video-on-demand channels weeks before a theater sees a poster. Also I will take a moment to let you in on a little secret: most indies suck.
Before anyone comments, I realize I am painting an entire area of cinema with a wide brush of judgment, but too many wannabe auteurs are able to put their half-assed ideas in front of an audience as long as they can afford a couple of cheap cameras and have enough friends to fill the roles. Too often a movie will receive good buzz from critics for having an ounce of originality and professionalism stretched over 90 minutes.
That brings us to Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the latest from indie-cinema sensations Jay & Mark Duplass. Considered by many to be the finest directors of the “mumble core” movement, perhaps their most formidable talent is networking. Whereas their compatriots in indie world are still holding on to the motto, “If it doesn’t look like crap, it’s not art,” the Duplass Brothers have actually been able to cast fairly big name stars into their last few films, and had said films released by major studios. The problem still seems to be that no one can get a fully formed script onto the screen.
Jeff (Jason Segel) is a 30-year-old living in his mother’s basement, unemployed and lacking direction. A fan of the film Signs, he is sent by his mother (Susan Sarandon) to pick up a tube of wood glue one morning, and begins seeing fate’s hand in everyday occurrences. Running into his overbearing brother Pat (Ed Helms) along the way, the twosome studies their family’s dynamic while spying on Pat’s possibly cheating wife Linda (Judy Greer).
Not much of a description, but then again, not much of a plot. The Signs bit is dropped about halfway through the movie, and is only picked up again at the end as a convenient way for the filmmakers to explain characters choices. The characters are all basically unlikeable, and the audience is given no reason to wish them well in the future.
To give credit where it is due, once the Signs stuff is forgotten about the film becomes a study of one family’s dysfunction and a realistic portrayal of a marriage falling apart. Jeff’s dad died while the brothers were teenagers, and Jeff was left with an asshole of a brother and a mom that doesn’t particularly like him very much. Ed Helms’ (The Hangover) work here as Pat is the best of his career, playing a man that doesn’t seem capable of caring about those closest to him. When his wife is spotted with another man, the thought doesn’t seem to enter his mind that he may be losing her, sending Jeff to listen to their conversation only so he’ll “have something to hold over her head when I need it.” It would have been easy to switch the actors’ roles so that the more physically imposing Segel could play the heavy, but Helms is a revelation in the role.
The Duplass’ have shown in the past, like last year’s Cyrus for instance, that they have the talent to become major players in filmmaking in the future. Once they realize they don’t have to push out a half-formed movie every year like it’s a quota system, I believe they will truly begin to make their mark. As it stands now, take Jeff’s advice and just hang out in the basement this weekend and far away from the cinema.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens today at the Colony in Raleigh, Southpoint in Durham, and the Chelsea in Chapel Hill.