Mark Duplass has said that he and his brother, Jay, look to the veteran Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for artistic inspiration, with their naturalistic, documentary-style approach to telling feature stories.
That's evident once again in "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," a sweet, slight tale told with simple intimacy and a deadpan tone to its absurd humor. Not much happens over a meandering day in suburban Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but it all builds to a climax that makes the journey worthwhile. And it reveals that between this and the 2010 comedy "Cyrus," the Duplass brothers have figured out how to continue placing their signature, improvisational, indie stamp as writers and directors, even as they keep making bigger studio films with well-known actors.
Jason Segel plays the titular character, a 30-year-old, pot-smoking slacker who still lives in the basement of his childhood home. (A side note: New Orleans natives Jay and Mark Duplass moved back into their parents' house with their own families while shooting on location.) But Jeff is a thinker and a dreamer. Inspired by the M. Night Shyamalan movie "Signs," he believes there are no coincidences, that everything happens for a reason if you're willing to open your mind and pay attention to the daily details that can determine your fate.
And so a simple errand for his widowed, enabling mother (Susan Sarandon in a lovely, understated performance) to pick up some wood glue at the hardware store turns into a weird and winding adventure involving pick-up basketball, amateur sleuthing and an elusive man named Kevin who may hold the key to today's true destination. The Duplasses create the sensation that we're just following along wherever Jeff takes us, without judgment.
Along the way, Jeff crosses paths with his older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), who's his exact opposite in terms of values and temperament. He's constantly trying too hard to impress both personally and professionally, and he's desperately hoping to keep his marriage alive to the increasingly distant Linda (Judy Greer). All of these comic actors find different sorts of laughs - sadder, truer ones - by toning down some of their usual tendencies. They're no less effective this way, but the shift does provide an unexpected tone.
Still, for a frequently silly comedy, one of the funniest and most memorable elements is unabashedly romantic: Jeff and Pat's mom, Sharon, has a secret admirer at work, and the way this enlivens her dreary, cubicle-dwelling doldrums is nothing short of magical. She seems willing to open herself to what the universe is trying to tell her, too, for the first time in a long time.
In some ways this subplot could have been its own film. Still, Jeff's mystical approach to life is inescapable, and everyone's better for it - whether they're paying attention to the signs or not.
"Jeff, Who Lives at Home," a Paramount Vantage release, is rated R for language including sexual references and some drug use. Running time: 82 minutes. Three stars out of four.