I'm delighted that the Duplass Brothers have turned into the It Boys of the early 21st century. They continue to make films together, and Mark Duplass keeps getting hired as an actor as well. I can't keep up with all of his acting credits lately. I discovered the Duplasses in 2008, when they released their hand-made postmodern deconstruction of the horror genre, "Baghead."
I certainly wouldn't have predicted that they would become popular, given that they so completely go against the grain of the dominant culture. In a time that is so brainless, they continue to bring forth thoughtful, unique material that is decidedly un-pretty and often downright difficult to watch -- and sometimes quite brainy.
The fourth film that they have made together, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" (after "Puffy Chair," "Baghead," and "Cyrus"), initially seems like it's going to resemble a Judd Apatow comedy, with the reference in the title to a 30-year-old man who still lives with his mother. The title was probably a huge mistake because it gives the impression that the film is derivative.
While "Jeff" does to some degree operate within a hackneyed paradigm (isn't it funny that so many young men today are overgrown boys), and yes, it does make use of the mumble-core style that was already tired and played out 10 years ago. But it has other elements that give it strength.
First of all, it's not a comedy. By casting Jason Segel (an Apatow regular) and Ed Helms (a comedic legend due to his work in the "Hangover" films), the Duplasses lure you in expecting comedy. There are some chuckles in "Jeff," but what you mostly get is Segel and Helms portraying broken men who have a tough time finding anything to laugh about. Both men deliver beautiful performances that you will probably remember for a long time.
To prepare for the role, Segel appears to have eaten only junk food for two months straight. His body is bloated and borderline revolting. I love it when a movie star has the guts to be ugly in a film. But the bigger, more satisfying surprise is how Helms's performance comes up behind you and wallops you with its emotional depth and honesty. Helms has a tremendous amount to be proud of here. I even think he might get some Oscar buzz from this, similar to what happened for Jonah Hill last year ("Moneyball") and Adam Sandler in 2009 ("Funny People").
It's a real thrill to see actors known for comedy being given the chance to show how much more is going on inside of them.
Then there's Susan Sarandon, who plays a middle-aged widow yearning to reignite her passion for life. "Jeff" is not a great film, but it's a worthy one. And it deserved more attention than it got when it was released.