Such that it could have ever been labeled a fully-conscious movement, “Mumblecore”—quotations applied sarcastically—was so broadly defined that it wound up encapsulating anyone making microbudgeted films in the mid-aughts. As such, it grouped together as diverse talent as super-realist Andrew Bujalski, formal adventurer Joe Swanberg and minimalist Aaron Katz—filmmakers whose only relevant conjoined trait was their budgets (and sometimes actors). The ranks also included Mark and Jay Duplass. Stone-cold indie populists—as opposed to up-and-comer populists whose five year plan leads to the next Marvel product—they were the ones capable, frankly, of one day making Jeff, Who Lives at Home. And here it is.
The Duplasses are talented, Mark even moreso due to his moonlighting acting career. (His befuddled work in Humpday, with his character trying badly to maintain bro-ish enthusiasm for his looming stint as a gay porn actor, is a work of comedic genius.) But while The Puffy Chair and Baghead cleverly worked in darker elements, Cyrus, their graduation to a modest studio budget, found the two at a crossroads: The film was split evenly between insightful skewering and sitcom pap. Jeff, another dramedy with a name cast, goes full-steam the second, wrong way.
Jason Segel plays the title character, a hoodie-wearing, unemployed loser whose alleged endearing idiocy leads him to accidentally rendezvous with his uptight douche of a brother Pat (Ed Helms, with goatee). Farcical situations lead Pat to think his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him. Meanwhile, office monkey mom (Susan Sarandon) finds herself the target of a secret admirer who may not be a man (gasp!). These slight storylines, neither inconsequential nor consequential, are unimaginatively resolved via the funny-then-sad/warm trajectory of too many art house crowd pleasers out to win audience awards at festivals followed by light box office.
Of the Duplasses’ ouevre thus far, Jeff is the most technically ambitious, at least insofar as its action is crammed into one day and there exists mild automotive mayhem, but their laziest in every other respect. It’s not so much terrible as offensively forgettable, and only offensive because it comes from filmmakers who can do better. The Duplasses could easily get caught into an endless loop of juiceless faux-indies. Jeff stands as stark evidence that they shouldn’t.
Read our interview with writer/director Mark Duplass here.