‘Jeff, Who Lives at Home’ Review: Funny … and Surprisingly Surprising

Comic heavyweights Jason Segel and Ed Helms play brothers in a film that takes one unpredictably fascinating turn after another

Last Updated: November 6, 2013 @ 11:18 AM

It almost feels like a spoiler to reveal that there are spoilers in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” After all, if you’ve seen the trailer or even the poster, featuring Jason Segel as a burned-out pothead still tethered to his mother’s basement, you probably think you already know where this movie is going.

But this latest comedy from writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass (“Cyrus”) turns out to be chock-full of an element missing from most of today’s movies: genuine surprise.

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Audiences are bound to disagree over whether or not they buy into the Duplass’ seemingly random plotting here, but for me, their leaps felt like bold ones.

The script’s twists of fate not only underscore the film’s premise but they also radically transform the movie itself, turning it from ploddingly familiar to a refreshing bit of near-magical realism.

Jason Segel stars as Jeff, a thirtyish slacker still living in a blur since the death of his beloved father more than a decade earlier. Jeff relies upon the kindness of his frazzled mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who’s increasingly irritated with Jeff’s mooching, regretful about her life decisions, and mystified by the fact that she apparently has a secret admirer among her office co-workers.

While Jeff hits the bong for his daily wake-and-bake, Sharon calls home and insists that he go to the hardware store for some wood glue. Before he can leave the house, Jeff receives a wrong number for somebody named Kevin. And whether it’s out of his love for the M. Night Shyamalan movie “Signs” or a significant amount of brain-frying from all the pot he smokes (the two go hand in hand, come to think of it), Jeff decides that there are no wrong numbers, and it’s up to him to find this mysterious Kevin.

Jeff’s journey takes him to a pick-up basketball game — it’s a total white-guy fantasy to shine while playing hoops in the ’hood, but at least Segel has the height to back it up — and across the path of his brother Pat (Ed Helms), who has just done some major damage to his already-fractured marriage to Linda (Judy Greer) by buying a Porsche they can’t afford.

As the day continues, the paths of the bickering brothers (as well as those of Sharon and Linda) will continue to intertwine, with the possibility growing ever stronger that predestination exists and that the universe is indeed sending us signs and signals all the time.

By the film’s end, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” comes to resemble Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1994 masterpiece “Three Colors: Red,” another film in which random acts and encounters accumulate to become something life-changing.

This movie’s much funnier than that, of course, even if Jeff feels like a variation of other characters that Segel has played before, and even if it’s hard to believe Sarandon playing a character who doesn’t feel attractive; sporting a dowdy business ensemble and slightly unkempt hair, the actress can still barely dampen her still-radiant Sarandon-ipity.

Helms’ work here, like his starring role in “Cedar Rapids,” confirms him as one of this generation’s most reliable cinematic Everymen. Pat is a big ball of exposed wants and needs and disappointments, and Helms finds what’s absurd and empathetic about the character without ever condescending.

And as she did in “The Descendants,” Greer plays a quietly desperate woman who gets a powerful meltdown scene late in the film that’s absolutely electrifying. It’s always a treat to see the ebullient Rae Dawn Chong, here playing a co-worker of Sharon’s determined to help her friend decode the mystery of her anonymous suitor.

I can’t remember the last time a movie annoyed me and then won me over in the course of 90 or so minutes, but “Jeff” so brilliantly twists away from where it appears to be going that I was more than happy to take the ride.