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Movie Review

Jeff Who Lives at Home

Shabby, shaky ‘Jeff’ is too sad to play for laughs

Ed Helms (left) plays a married brat named Pat and Jason Segel is his brother, the title character, in “Jeff Who Lives at Home.’’ Ed Helms (left) plays a married brat named Pat and Jason Segel is his brother, the title character, in “Jeff Who Lives at Home.’’ (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 16, 2012
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Praising “Jeff Who Lives at Home’’ requires great charity. Two adult brothers - Jeff (Jason Segel) and Pat (Ed Helms) - seek Pat’s wife (Judy Greer), who could be having an affair, while the brothers’ mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), deciphers romantic instant messages from a co-worker cubicles away from hers. A sitcom would set these events in motion and 22 minutes later have them solved. This is a sitcom at four times the length, 10 percent the amusement, and triple the amount of nauseating photography.

The camera likes to zoom in and out for close-ups. It does this so often and so violently that it’s like having a movie shake the oatmeal out of you for an hour and a half. When, say, Robert Altman used (and overused) a zoom, there was a kind of grace in the way the camera wended its way across a room or landscape. Even the fake-documentary format on shows like “Modern Family,’’ “Parks and Recreation,’’ and “The Office’’ proceeds with a smoothness that fosters verisimilitude. The brothers Mark and Jay Duplass wrote and directed this movie, and they aren’t looking for anything. Their camera isn’t curious. If anything, it needs to see a doctor.

The movie opens with Jeff speaking into a tape recorder about fate and destiny. The film “Signs’’ inspires his musings, which a cut to wider angle reveals are being conducted from a toilet. I’d like to report that it’s only up from there. In fact, the movie heads in the opposite direction. It’s a 88-minute flush. The Duplasses might argue that they’re up to bigger things. Jeff is about 30 and lives in the basement of Sharon’s Baton Rouge house. He gets high and has no ostensible job until the final 15 minutes, when the cosmos forces importance upon him. But it’s redemption that feels tossed in, like when you ask for extra ketchup and napkins at a drive-thru.

Before that, Jeff plays basketball with a young, open-faced black guy (Evan Ross) whom he thinks is a sign from the universe. He and his buddies wind up mugging Jeff. So, really, he’s just a sign of the monoracial universe of independent moviemaking. If Jeff is a vacuum of ambition, Pat is a brat. He ignores the needs of his wife, buying, for instance, a Porsche they can’t afford. We’re meant to know Pat’s a loser because he has a bad goatee and spends the movie in his work uniform (the logo reads, “Poplar Paint Company’’). The only perceptive lines here belong to Greer, who creates such a persuasive portrait of aggravation and disappointment that you have no idea what the woman she’s playing has to do with Helms’s comic-strip character.

It’s also unclear what Sharon’s half of the movie has to do with Jeff and Pat’s. These scenes do produce the happy sight of Rae Dawn Chong as a co-worker and the glory of Sarandon’s silent-movie eyes rising above a cubicle partition like two suns. I can’t remember the last time Sarandon has looked as naturally beautiful as she does here, even, or perhaps especially, when wet. It’s a mark of how out-of-whack the entertainment industry is when it comes to middle-aged women that this movie’s as lucky to have her as she, in some sense, is to have it. The Duplasses’ previous film was the toothless romantic comedy “Cyrus,’’ in which Marisa Tomei took a stupid part and made it work much the way Sarandon has here.

The new movie’s absurdist tone - or its attempt to achieve it - calls to mind the Coen brothers and Alexander Payne. But the Duplasses are in desperate need compared to the Coens’ visual coherence and Payne’s wit and delicacy. I’ve seen four of the Duplasses’ films, and I don’t know what they hope to do or say.

“Jeff Who Lives at Home’’ devotes so much of itself to mocking the loneliness and personal shortcomings of these characters that once it stops jabbing and turns serious, you start laughing. The people here are shown in drab offices, dumpsters, and sunken down in dry motel bathtubs. They’re soiled and stoned and stuck. The rain that showers Sharon is from a ceiling sprinkler, not the sky. This is a sad, shabby world. The Duplasses have chosen it not because it’s one in which a lot of us live. There’s a kind of arrogance in their picking this place that’s also true of the Coens at their laziest. They think they can laugh at it without making it funny.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

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JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME

Written and directed by:

Mark and Jay Duplass

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

At: Boston Common,

Kendall Square, suburbs

Running time: 88 minutes

Rated: R (language,

sexual references, pot)

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