Dir. Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass
(2012, R, 83 min)

Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass, the sibling directors who emerged from the “mumblecore” movement of ultra-low-budget indie filmmaking, have a knack for wrapping sweetly low-key human stories in seemingly conventional comedy packages. Or perhaps it’s the marketers of their films who are good at making it seem that way. The ads for Jeff, Who Lives at Home and their previous film, Cyrus, were designed to appeal more to the fans of their stars – Jason Segel and Ed Helms in this case, John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in Cyrus – than to fans of ultra-low-budget indie filmmaking.

Segel stars as Jeff, who, you might have guessed, lives at home with his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). His older brother Pat (Helms) is ostensibly the more responsible of the two; he has a job and a wife (Judy Greer) and lives in his own home. Jeff believes in fate, as do many people, but unlike most people he believes in fate as reflected by the ending of M. Night Shyamalan‘s Signs. Having apparently mistaken a labored screenwriting gimmick for the workings of the universe, he spends his days looking for hidden clues from the cosmos. They say life is what happens while you’re making plans; Jeff is waiting for life to provide an itinerary.

From early on it’s clear that the dysfunction of Jeff and his family is rooted in the death of his father when he was a teenager. At first that seems like the filmmakers’ attempt to enlist our sympathy for a self-involved man-child with possible mental problems, so for a while I resisted the premise, but eventually the characters won me over. Jeff proves more self-aware than he at first seems. A subplot involving Pat’s wife and a possible affair takes a more interesting turn than I expected. And Sharon, who spends most of the film at an unspecified office job, has what seems to be a minor subplot about a secret admirer that reveals surprising depth in her character.

The film is ultimately about longing. The three family members are all in search of something missing from their lives. In a literal sense, it’s their father who is missing, but they’re also coping with a larger absence of purpose, and then finding it – sort of. This is not a great or groundbreaking film, but a slice of life with refreshing sincerity that left me with a warm feeling.