In the opening scene of the Duplass brothers' charming, low-key comedy Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the main character explains that he's based his entire slacker lifestyle on the movie Signs. He's not lazy; he's just waiting for the universe to tell him what he should be doing. The Duplass brothers treat their hero, and the premise, with such gentleness that the movie makes a pretty good case for adopting Jeff's approach; it's a Zen slacker-philosophy manifesto.
Jason Segel plays Jeff, a single, jobless pot smoker who drives his mother (Susan Saranadon) crazy with his irresponsibility. During the course of one eventful day, however, Jeff will confront his estranged brother Pat (Ed Helms), help Pat try to find out if his wife Linda (Judy Greer) is cheating on him, get mugged, infuriate his mother, and grieve for his deceased father.
Though Jeff is certainly a ridiculous figure to try to build an entire movie around, the Duplass brothers and their cast find a unity of tone that keeps the movie buoyant and sweet, even when the material gets dark. Segel is effortlessly charming, in large part because Jeff very rarely puts much effort into anything. He comes off like a doofus, but quickly we see he's just a sweet-natured guy in search of a little direction. Helms, playing way against type as the aggressively obnoxious Pat, makes for a great on-screen partner. The two look nothing like brothers, which strengthens the dramatic undercurrents of the script; we want this family to come together, but we're constantly reminded how hard it will be. Those two are the center of the movie to be sure, but Greer also excels in the role of Pat's wife, and Sarandon scores as the boy's frustrated mother, who ends up spending the same day trying to figure out who the identity of her secret admirer at work might be.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is another logical step forward for Jay and Mark Duplass. They made their names in the über low-budget mumblecore movement, but their 2010 film Cyrus showed a commitment to traditional narrative, as well as an ability to work with first-rate acting talents. Cyrus lingered playfully at darkness, making discomforting humor out of incest, but this film finds them on even steadier footing. They aren't making fun of their characters' problems -- the emotional undercurrents of the film are sad -- but the laughs come from Jeff and his family's humanity, not from their weirdness.
Whereas Signs wastes lots of time on crop-circles, tin-foil hats, and baby monitors to get to its moral about the importance of faith, Jeff, Who Lives at Home achieves the profundity M. Night's alien flick desperately strives for but without the same portentousness or pretentiousness. We might laugh at Jeff's obsession, but by the end we don't question the truth of what he believes -- even when we're laughing at him.