The lo-fi, small-budget movie by the Duplass brothers is an understated smile-inducer.
There are parts of "Jeff Who Lives at Home" that don't add up -- just downright logical and technical errors -- but the movie's daft sweetness lulled me into such a pleasant mood that I can't complain. This is one of those smart, funny, rueful movies like "Cedar Rapids" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" where you sense that everyone involved truly cares about the characters. It's impossible not to join in the good feeling.
Not that they're lovable right out of the box. Jeff (Jason Segel) is a 30-ish pothead man-child taking up space in his mom's basement. Older brother Pat (Ed Helms) is a self-centered clod. Without consulting his wife, Linda (Judy Greer), Pat buys himself a Porsche Boxster with money that would have been better spent in moving them out of their cheerless little apartment. Their mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), is a world-class enabler who should have smacked some sense into her no-account sons long ago.
What redeems the characters is that they all want to do better. The movie's gentle humor comes from their fumbling, befuddled efforts to rise above their lot in life. The film follows them over the course of a day when they face improbable challenges. Jeff, who takes coincidences as signs that the universe is sending him messages, steps into a series of increasingly improbable adventures. Widowed Sharon turns detective to learn which secretive office mate is sending her flirtatious messages. Pat observes Linda at lunch with another man and suspects the worst. Plot lines cross, complications pile up, laughs ensue.
The Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, co-wrote and directed the film. They're playing a low-stakes game here. This is a low-budget, low-fidelity production. The jokes are understated and flow from the friction of incompatible personalities. The story is wise about the ways family bonds can stifle and how they can form a safety net. Segel's Jeff, easygoing to a fault, puts himself on the line for Pat, trying to sneak into the booth beside Linda and her lunch date to eavesdrop on their conversation. His fruitless struggle to blend in at the upscale bistro is nicely understated. As Pat, Helms is a far cry from his usual sad sacks, exposing raw layers of hostility and neediness. But when the time comes to stand up for his brother, he's there.
The Duplass brothers' films, from "The Puffy Chair" to "Baghead" to "Cyrus," reliably travel through interpersonal disenchantment to end on a note of reconciliation and hope. "Jeff" follows the pattern. It won't change your life but it'll probably send you out the exit smiling.