Jason Segel’s career path is one of non-stop contradictions. Whether it’s playing the loveable but idiotic stoner in Freaks and Geeks and “Knocked Up,” to the affable break-up victim in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” or the quirky kid at heart in “The Muppets,” he’s always the loser we want to make sure wins. The new indie from the Duplass brothers, “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” comes just short of daring viewers to take a different look at Segel and it works wonderfully because of it.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of Jeff and Mark Duplass’ work, even Mark’s portrayal of Pete on FX’s The League. Their movies, which created the terribly named mumble-core, are everything that’s wrong with indie filmmaking. Focusing almost entirely on rich, artistic white people and relying too much on cheeky “ain’t-I-a-stinker” humor and meta-textual references, it’s daunting for new viewers and bound to only please the most pretentious, particularly in the laborious “The Puffy Chair” or the truly awful “Baghead.”
That being said, “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” dares to be populist. Casting Segel and Ed Helms as bickering brothers with vastly different ways of coping with the mess their lives have turned out to be is welcoming and the two have fantastic chemistry.
Here, Segel plays a stoner of the highest order, one part “The Dude” mixed with two parts spacy “Rain Man.” The joy of the film comes in watching him bumble his way through what he thinks are signs from the universe, chasing candy filled trucks, smoking weed with someone he stalks and trying to order water at a fancy bistro all in the Herculean quest to purchase wood glue.
“Jeff, Who Lives At Home” takes the now common gimmick of following characters through a single day in their lives, reveling in their eccentricities and insecurities and it’s done impressively here. Whether it’s Helms dealing with his crumbling relationship with his wife, played beautifully by Judy Greer of Arrested Development, Susan Sarandon dealing with a secret admirer at work or how Segel still can’t shake the trauma of his father’s death, viewers will truly feel the pain of the characters in the seconds when they’re not laughing hysterically.
Ultimately, “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” is about the way people’s preconceptions of who they are change so that they can have what they want and what they need. It’s heady, difficult stuff but the Duplass directors soften the blow with great, memorably funny performances from Segel and Helms and a beautiful character arc that will define Sarandon’s late career. This is indie film for the masses done right and it’s not going to insult either art-house regulars or talk down to blockbuster junkies.