Filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass have stitched together a slight, offbeat celebration of serendipity that exults in its own discomfiting mix of snark and sincerity.
The Duplass brothers, known to art-house audiences for "The Puffy Chair," are progenitors of an ill-defined genre known as "mumblecore," typified by the use of hand-held cameras and improvisational acting styles. (Perhaps it isn't so much a genre as it is the inevitable result of putting low-cost digital-video cameras in the hands of a self-obsessed generation of filmmakers.)
In any case, this fidgety, do-it-yourself style is at work in "Jeff, Who Lives At Home," despite the presence of name-brand actors, including comedy stars Jason Segel as Jeff and Ed Helms as his brother Pat. The movie is shot almost entirely in close-up. Sudden jerky adjustments and quick zooms give it a documentary flavor, but unlike a documentary, "Jeff" makes a virtue of improbability and coincidence.
It's the story of a day in the life of an unemployed pot-smoking slacker who lives in the basement of his mother's house in Baton Rouge, La. He's at a crossroads in his life — torn between dwelling on the death of his father and looking to the future to discover the mysterious, hidden purposes that guide his life.
The movie makes frequent allusions to the M. Night Shyamalan alien-invasion film "Signs." Jeff identifies with the character played by Joaquin Phoenix — the former baseball prospect living at home who discovers he was put on Earth to help suppress an alien invasion with a few swings of his mighty bat.
The use of the ludicrous and much-maligned "Signs" as a kind of signifier is itself telling, apparently cluing the audience into the wry, sardonic intelligence at work here. But this ironic tone is gently undercut by the events of the movie.
As the movie opens, Jeff is tasked by his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), with buying some wood glue to fix a broken louver on a closet door. He also receives a wrong-number phone call from someone looking to speak to "Kevin." The name "Kevin" begins to appear throughout Jeff's day in odd places — on the back of a basketball jersey, on a delivery truck.
By following these signs, Jeff discovers the secrets of his brother's failing marriage and tracks Pat's wife, Linda (Judy Greer), to a possible assignation. The lattice of coincidence also ensnares Sharon and her lonely, amorous colleague Carol (Rae Dawn Chong).
The movie turns out to be a bit of a tear-jerker, but the emotion feels contrived and wrung out. At odd moments, simple keyboard music blurts almost out of nowhere, to cue an emotional response.
The performances are naturalistic and straightforward, but there's something about "Jeff" that does not feel authentic or honest. In the end, it's impossible to know whether it's crying with you or laughing at you.
TITLE: "Jeff, Who Lives At Home"
CREDITS: Written and directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass
RATING: R for frequent profanity
RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS