RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 18: The Duplass Bros.’ “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” (2012)

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

The Players…

Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong and Susan Sarandon.

The Story…

Even though he had the right upbringing, Jeff had some life arrest in his teenage years…which is now entering its third decade. He never went to college. Never got a job. Never moved out of Mom’s basement. Never wanting anything more of life.

In a word: slacker.

But Jeff’s not a slacker despite what his family may think of him. Jeff knows that somewhere out in the world is his purpose, his one true calling and he’s simply waiting for the proper signs to light his way. He feels that if he listens hard enough, the Great Forces At Work will tell him what to do.

Like maybe go glue shopping.

The Rant…

In many of our outings here at RIORI I have pointed out (read: whined) about being a member of Generation X. The kids born of the Boomers and are the first generation to have it harder than blah blah blah and blah with a side of blah. I’ll spare you the sociopolitical doggerel.

No, I won’t.

Here’s the deal: I get to editorialize for about a jillion paragraphs regarding some sort of social deconstruction relevant to this week’s movie, and you stay put and squirm till the spittle dries on my keyboard. Thank you, and please try the veal.

I’ll streamline it though, just enough to make this installment’s yardstick relevant to maybe one-third of America’s white, middle-class, college educated, late 30s, regarding the death of Kurt Cobain as the total loss of art and music history and fashion in Western Civilization reluctant adults. I dwell here, too, honeybee. For those of you who can relate, there’s distinct likelihood of a flannel shirt and pair of Docs mouldering in the back of your closet, waiting for the perfect time to strike. That and a Color Me Badd LP stained with ancient teardrops. Ain’t nostalgia fun? Word.

Me? I was never a Nirvana fan. I know that kicks me off the back of the Gex X cool wagon. And trust me, we of that generation were very in tune to what “cool” was supposed to be. Mostly it came in the form of calculated indifference and cynicism tempered with the absolute assuredness that the grass was greener elsewhere, and likewise just out of reach. Like the Adverts sang, we’re just bored teenagers, seeing ourselves as strangers. We’re talkin’ high school in the 90s here, people, which doubtless wasn’t too different from high school in previous decades. However I’d like believe that teens of my generation were painfully more self-aware than kids slogging it out during the Reagan years. You know, when ketchup was deemed a vegetable.

In a certain way that self-awareness set us up for failure. Sure, all teens are painfully self-conscious about everything. Appearance, social status, their pet projects and whether or not Pop Rocks and beer will have the same effect as Pop Rocks and Coke (it doesn’t by the way. Another traveling tip). Such things make up the teenage MO for the better part of high school. Call it a survival tactic.

But being self-conscious isn’t the same as self-aware. I recall as a youth certain things that most folks older than I—not too much older. Friends’ older siblings mostly, those in college especially—weren’t in tune to. They didn’t have to be. This was in the early/mid-90s. The dawn of the Info Age where the Web was coming into prominence. The promise of Bush the First’s no new taxes didn’t pan out, and frankly the cost of everything went through the roof. The failure of Desert Storm, where a sense of patriotism died faster than lusting for a Sega Saturn. And all of it smeared 24/7 on inescapable cable news channels. So sure, Gen X had a lot to be suspicious about, and facing a wobbly future of gain and promise didn’t seem like a guarantee. Looked more like a game of roulette. Tell me, when a prez candidate hopes to woo the youth vote by honking Elvis tunes on a sax (badly), how sure could you be about the way the country might be headed?

We were all very self-aware. Keenly so that uncertainty abounded and the escape of college or a reasonable shot at employment was not necessarily in the cards. If we could even locate the deck. If you think about it, such navel-gazing would explain the pop culture scene in the 90s. Look at the touchstones we had to draw from. All those grunge bands with their relentless emotional examination. Culty TV shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files were big hits based partly on the left-of-center storytelling style (the whole uncertainty thing, as well as conspiratory undertones). Look at all the John Hughes movies. Those f*cking Chicken Soup for the Soulless Soul books. All of it self-aware with a mild streak of cynicism and irony running through it all, even those damned books (what maligned bunch of losers would even need a series like that? Right).

What I’m getting at is Gen X didn’t receive the world on a silver platter like the Boomers did (and in the process spilled the tea); we understood at an early age we’d have to earn it. Based against the boy-howdy, back-slappin’, ain’t we the gatekeepers of cool bullish*t the Boomers hung around X’s neck, we kinda had a pretty good idea that our ride into the future would be less slick than turds through a dyspeptic pitbull.

And we were right. Ask Kurt Cobain. If you can find him.

Not that I’m bitter. Well, okay. A little, but it can be justified to a degree. In all honesty, our parents did the best they could with what they had, like all decent parents ought. What they had though (toking their way through their teen years. Y’know, before it was illegal, then legal, then…who the f*ck knows what’s going on anymore? Maybe Alaskans do) was privilege, far greater and more insidious that what gifts X received. If you’re wondering about the generational dynamic delineating opportunity, it kinda goes something like this:

Greatest Generation: “Here. We survived the Depression and won WW2. Here’s what we earned. Take what you can, and may it serve you well.”

Baby Boomers: “Thanks. I’ll go invest this in weed and Dead tickets.”

Generation X: “College costs what now? And isn’t Jerry Garcia dead?”

Aging Boomers: “Shaddap. We got a yummy ice cream named after him, okay? Now help me upload my account into the Cloud. There’s no damn dial on my iPhone 3.”

Something like that.

But about that degree of bitterness. I was bombarded back in the 90s with pop news reports declaiming that my generation would be the first in the history of the nation to be less successful than the previous one. What with stagflation, Reaganomics, rampant outsourcing, environmental blight and even the advent of the Home Shopping Network, X faced a seemingly ever increasing uphill battle towards financial solvency. Sad but the lesson of history dictates true. Gen X has at least twice as many college degrees as the Boomers, yet most of us were barely hired enough to earn cab fare. Sure, I can go back and left-handedly blame Boomer easy privilege again, but we were raised behind such privilege. So what went all amok?

Not sure. But thanks to all that muckity-muck I spoke of, since the turn of the century well-educated, articulate, 20-turning-into-40-somethings were forced to return to the nest. Mom and Dad. The Deadheads. The ones who said if looked really carefully at Santana’s first album cover you could see the band member’s faces (what’s Skype?). Thousands of perfectly capable young adults unable to get out of the basement for lack of decent jobs and/or student loans that could only be paid off with a maturing interest on their savings account left alone for the time it takes a one-time Cobain lover to trek to Saturn and back by foot. Barring the hyperbole, this situation has been a real thing for both me and others of my generation. We were forced back to the womb, kicking and screaming like the first time, only in reverse.

A lot of Gen X found their way back into Mommy and Daddy’s basement while still holding down a full time job (some with actual benefits) let’s not forget. However, no matter how much was made and done to get ahead, some sort of malign fiscal force kept Gen X at bay. An example? A friend of mine—a professor of psychology at a local university, and her hubs a headhunter for a reputable commercial data firm—still lives at home with her parents. With her three kids. Why? Can’t afford a house. Plain and simple. With those credentials? Hi, we’re Generation X. Please pawn the Xbox One.

So it’s not uncommon that a large swath of my generation eventually stumbled back “home” for haven and free laundry. It’s too damned expensive out there, and the real estate game is a crapshoot (with an emphasis on crap). What jobs are available pay just above the fearful “lower middle class” range, and the fields are so cutthroat is doesn’t matter that you got a degree but rather where you got said degree. And how fast. With that kind of job market, debts piling up, no readily affordable housing, who wouldn’t kick down Mom and Dad’s door out of desperation and frustration?

Many, many self-aware, once cool kids with their advanced degrees (including me) are crashing on Mom’s couch in the basement, only to have to be up by six for job numero uno and an endless bowl of Top Ramen after the second shift ends. It’s a sad state of affairs, and ultimately dehumanizing. With all the promises given us, and the resources ripe for the plucking (this all during the Internet boom) there’s really no easy answer why so many of us had to return to the nest.

All these birds coming home to roost created a stereotype late in waning days of the 20th Century. Perfectly capable young adults, most of whom partially educated, clinging to menial jobs like the last lifejacket on the Titanic and engaging in recreational activities of a dubious nature (my friend with the kids showed me how to make a hash pipe out of an apple. She’s a psych prof, y’know). Are they disenfranchised? Undervalued? Underemployed?

Nope. They’re slackers.

That’s a term of derision I can’t stand. Sure, there are a lot water-headed f*cks of my generation whiling away their days with endless hours of Clash of Clans and having to keep recharging that vaporizer every fifteen minutes. Their lives are like those in the Linklater movie of the same name. I’m not so bleary-eyed to ignore this sad demographic. Hell, I was part of it for a time.

You know the type. Thirty-something, living in Mommy and Daddy’s basement, wasting their days in a beater shirt with some rock band’s logo on it (mine was Yes, and don’t you judge me), Funyon wrappers strewn about while molesting the Internet and/or PS4 for hours, if not entire afternoons. There’s usually booze, energy drinks and pot mixed up in there, too. This is what we have as the vessel for all that’s good and profitable in our culture. We have a guy (and it’s always a dude) with a three-day growth, a diploma in a cracked frame in his bureau somewhere, ignorant of life arrest and, well Funyon wrappers everywhere.

The curious part of slackerism is that its worldview is still a very self-aware one. Myopia is not a slacker affliction. Resignation, maybe, but the average lackadaisical man-child in the loft over the garage is not ignorant of his situation. Most likely he hates it. The hand he was dealt, or dealt out was not a winning one and the “rewards” reaped keep him stuck, inert, feeling like a failure and trying to feel out the one true thing that’ll make all of it switch around for the better. Get a (better) job. Lay off the pipe some. Understanding that World of Warcraft will wait for you and you can always DVR that Walking Dead marathon for future viewings. Like for after work.

It helps if you get out of the basement once in a while, too (Wake up, Jeff. That’s your cue)…

A gilded cage is still a cage, even if it merely has but faux cherry paneling.

It’s what’s been mellow Jeff’s (Segel) world for years. If not decades. Mom’s basement, with all its rent-free, cushy isolation. He’s been free to noodle around with endless video games, keep his bong in good, working order and neglect bathing on a daily basis, as well as commune with his muse: nonstop deconstruction of M Night Shayalaman’s opus, Signs.

Yes, Jeff firmly believes there are signs abounding in the Universe. Surely one will come to him if he’s patient enough, diligent enough and wise enough to figure which is the “right” one.

In the meantime, there’s that matter of the shutter being fixed.

Jeff’s beleaguered mom (Sarandon) has but one task for him to complete before she gets home: get glue to fix the busted shutter. Jeff balks at first; that weed ain’t gonna smoke itself. But mom’s threatened eviction again so Jeff figures he’s got no choice. And so it’s off to the hardware store, Abby Breslin’s plight always weighing heavily on his mind.

On the other side of town lives Jeff’s bro Pat (Helms), the polar opposite of Jeff in every way but disposition. He’s a go-getter. On the up-and-up. Nursing a potential drinking problem and is married unhappily ever after. But he’s got a Porsche! Whatever. Jeff accidentally runs into his brother en route to that all-elusive glue and scores a ride. As usual, Pat has no reservations about boasting his moderate success in tandem with criticizing his slacker brother. Jeff protests as always. He’s just looking for the proper opportunity to fly right.

Pat could easily jabber jaw and argue with Jeff all day about people’s station in life, if it weren’t for that car speeding by with Pat’s wife Linda (Greer) aboard with another man. That’s what brakes are for. Sure, Pat’s life might be the opposite of Jeff’s Zen-like non-life, but there are more important things in this world than overanalyzing Signs. Like sniffing out a possible affair.

And so it goes. Jeff looks for spiritual enlightenment from a alien movie. Pat goes looking for potential adultery. And Mom’s just looking for some glue.

Such signs yield the ties that bind.

Had a hard time with this one. A lot of themes hit real close to home, and not in any fun way. Despite Jeff being a comedy—and it was pretty funny—it was a bittersweet story to watch.

Jeff hit The Standard’s net mostly out of surprise. Sure, it was kind of an indie film (it fell under the banner of Paramount’s Vantage imprint) so the idea of big bucks raked in was at best a pipe dream. There goes the whole “mediocre returns” thing, so no real shocker there. It got relatively fair reviews, although shouldered against the Duplass’s first film Cyrus, it came across more like, “Jeff was okay, but Cyrus…” So strike two.

What I mean by surprise is that how the heck with cast, that very eclectic cast full of name stars performed in a solid movie and so few people were interested. Sure, Jeff didn’t have a wide release (we’ve understood how that goes with indie releases. This movie got shown in over a little more than 500 theaters), but we had the stars of How I Met Your Mother, The Hangover series and an Academy award winner all on board. One would think this would drum up a bit more curiosity. Blame the limited release, I guess. Remember what happened with A Most Violent Year? There you go.

I guess the whole “sophomore slump” could also be blamed for Jeff‘s lack of muscle. This is another symptom all too common with debut films from a critical darling director (or in this case, directors). Their first film is so noteworthy that any ensuing projects are almost always immediately held up against some accidental gold standard. It happened with Vincent Gallo, the Hughes Brothers, Jan de Bont, and to a lesser degree (you guessed it) M Night Shayamalan (all right, I know The Sixth Sense wasn’t his debut film. It might’ve well had been, and I wanted to tie the Signs bit in here somehow. Now get off me).

What I’m saying about the whole slump thing is that once a filmmaker cuts a remarkable film—debut or otherwise—it becomes a tender trap. Every new movie by them will never be as good as their first, and what comes later will always be considered hackwork on some level. It’s kinda like the Harper Lee conundrum. She wrote the brilliant To Kill A Mockingbird and vanished, her entire literary legacy resting on a single book. A very good book, mind you, enough so she didn’t need to write another novel for 50-odd years. Then Mockingbird‘s sequel, Go Set A Watchman was eventually released. Bookworms rejoiced. Then when they actually read the thing, critics and fans alike were all meh. It wasn’t nearly as good as the first book. Considering the gulf between publications, and Lee’s debut novel so entrenched in the cultural tapestry, no duh.

I never saw the Duplass’ first film, Cyrus, but I learned of its praise. And that movie reached a wider audience (relatively speaking again) with even a smaller theatrical release than Jeff. As if you haven’t figured it out yet, the Duplass’ sophomore effort got snubbed by fans and snobs for being, well, not Cyrus.

And that’s a shame, because Jeff was a sturdy little film.

What I respected most from Jeff‘s execution was it being low on the quirk scale. Why does it seem that for the past twenty years an indie comedy can’t be a comedy without some tongue-in-cheek, hipster, pseudo-ironic (read: misusing the term “ironic”) commentary or have painfully left-of-center, self-aware characters? It feels to me that the kinda mish-mash that was once so potent in an indie film like, say, Clerks is now de rigeur—and no longer ironical—for any would-be camera monkey that’s streamed one to many Wes Anderson movies. And I like Wes Anderson, but Bill Murray can only be so deadpan so much.

I’m not denying Jeff was quirky at all. Sure it was, but it was subtle about it. There wasn’t a lot of mugging the camera, off-the-cuff one liners, bizarrely threaded plot lines and, most importantly, not a musical number to be found. Kidding, but Jeff was pretty low key (until it wasn’t), despite the awkward characters and stilted dialogue, which was meant to enhance the storyline, not distract us from it. I found this refreshing. And Owen Wilson nowhere to be found.

Again, kidding. The feeling I walked away with from Jeff was slightly surreal. No, that’s it. Slightly surreal. The movies crawls along in a kind of dreamlike pace. It reflects Jeff’s idiot savant/slacker existence. So the guy’s looking for the ultimate sign, huh? What better way to illustrate this than have our anti-hero all sleepy-eyed and have his head in the clouds? Segel affects this faraway look in his eyes, as well as drowning in memories. The guy’s so damned mellow, almost ruefully so. You get a fast impression (the only really fast thing about the movie) that Jeff was meant for better things—or at least some thing—and there’s a tear of regret in his misbegotten circumstances (remember was I said earlier about slackerdom? Uh-huh). The scene of the pick-up b-ball game shows shades of lost potential, especially mirrored against the REDACTED. Still, on his current level, Jeff doesn’t seem to mind his wastrel status. Or perhaps just totally resigned to it. Segel does a good job remaining within type, but without a spine. He seems damaged, rather. Wounded puppy.

No shocker here, but Helms’ character, Jeff’s big bro Pat—blustery, snotty, prickly and much more successful that Jeff, whom he has no qualms about rubbing this in his face—has the mirror opposite of his little bro’s mopey sagacity. In short, Helms is excellent as a smarmy doosh. We all know someone like Pat. Hell, we probably work with—or, perish the thought, for—some knucklehead like Pat. Scene after scene when Pat, with his false sense of entitlement, does some fast-talking jive or passive-aggresively strong-arms Jeff into some cockamamie situation (in the case of the movie, sleuthing out the possibility of Linda fooling around on Pat), you have to laugh at his pompous absurdity and how f*cking well Jeff takes it. Not just takes it, goes along with it. After all, Pat is everything Jeff isn’t. At second glance, we find that to be a good thing. Needless to say, Helms was a stitch, and his whole caper that Jeff got hogtied into made for some weird, funny brotherly bonding.

The bonding thing. It becomes fast apparent how different Jeff and Pat are. Also, with both of their issues (or multiple issues. Christ, as far as I was concerned, both had the lifetime f*cking subscriptions) and despite their differences, they had a lot more in common than either wanted to admit. This comes to the fore during the driving scenes (in Pat’s newly acquired and against Linda’s wishes Porsche). Jeff could be regarded as the shortest, most dysfunctional road trip movie ever. A bastardized Bob and Bing road movie. It’s a good thing. I mean, what better way to generate tension that within the confines of a tiny, overpowered sports car? The eventual connection Jeff and Pat make is forged in adolescent fisticuffs, metaphorically speaking. You spend that much time in close quarters with a person you don’t get along with, let alone understand, some Stockholm Syndrome comes a-creeping. The dynamic of Jeff comes across as My Dinner With Andre for the 21st Century stupid crowd, and it gets damned funny.

Now Sarandon as mom Sharon is the wild card here. At first her motivation seems to be just impatient and harried, what with dopey Jeff and her claustrophobic job at her heels. She’s strident and beleaguered. When a “secret admirer” comes calling via instant messenger, she finally has a sense of purpose. Someone out there likes her! It’s almost reflective of why Linda may or may not be canoodling around Pat. It later becomes evident that Sharon is the litmus test for loneliness that’s been an undercurrent of Jeff since scene one. Sharon is the fulcrum. Just look at it. Jeff is lonely by ineffectual design. Pat is lonely—alienated from Linda—also by design, but doesn’t realize it until it bites him in the ass. Linda is lonely, wishing for her husband to “come back.” Jeff‘s baseline is all about personal suffering at the hands of fate, preordained or created. It’s the stuff Jeff’s been on guard for all his life. It’s all a drag, but couched in witty dialogue and screwy circumstances, you can laugh at it. I did. It’s like everyone is adolescent here, life arrested in high school. Only Jeff is sharp enough to follow this through, Signs or no.

There’s only one word to describe Jeff‘s kind of comedy: wry. Everything’s all off kilter here, and very little is just what it seems. It’s existential, bookended by wisecracks and loose cannon acting. Sure, there’s some nice, touching moments revolving around the ties that bind (glue, family ties. Get it?), but they’re mostly ancillary plot points to enhance the humor and the irony—which service is actually properly used here—that grinds the dysfunction and ultimate expression into snort-worthy powder. Yeah, quirky. I know. With Jeff, you’re soaking in it! You just don’t feel the film on you.

So to speak.

Kinda deep subtext for a movie about the misadventures of a slacker and an assh*le, I know. With an over-analysis of a middling Shayalaman movie as motivation to boot. Then again, and I once babbled on at length here, Gen X is awash in useless pop culture knowledge. Who’s to say that what Jeff was looking for as a sign in deconstructing a movie is no less foolish that strategizing with fantasy football or amassing every Radiohead bootleg in Christendom just to say you have it? There might be meaning somewhere in all that. For folks like Jeff—maybe all of us slackers—that might be all we need to hang on to.

Just keep watching the skies. Rewatching Unbreakable again might help, too.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. Sure, Jeff‘s got quite a bit going for it here, as far as low-level quirky, family drama, slacker comedies go. But really, all that’s for a matter of taste, and mine is generally questionable. Hell, you’ve read these reviews, right? Insert witty retort here:

Stray Observations…

  • Siegel got kinda pudgy for this role.
  • “That’s the mindset I’m talking about!”
  • Did Pat park the Porsche in a handicap spot? I think he did. Awesome!
  • “I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
  • Kinda felt the same way about Signs actually, but not in that way. We’re just friends.
  • “I like weed.” “Yeah, I can see that.”
  • Spin Doctors. Smile and/or wince at your own peril.
  • “You’re having a business meeting at Hooters?”
  • Was the lesbo thing really necessary?
  • “Anyone else in here?”
  • So they got the glue.

Next Installment…

Where will you be The Day After Tomorrow? Let’s hope not in New York, battling frostbite.

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