Low-key, realistic, and unobnoxiously touching, this dramedy revolves around two brothers, one an unemployed pothead, the other an oblivious married salesman, as they deal with each other on their mother’s birthday. We open with our titular character, the aimless, genial, and open-minded Jeff, sitting on the toilet, recording his thoughts after an umpteenth viewing of M. Night Shymalan’s Signs; his analysis of the film, complete with a heightened focus on the kismit and unforeseen coincidences of its plot, lay the groundwork for the superstition-heavy day that he is about to lead. After a few early-morning bong hits, he gets a call asking for someone named Kevin, who he insists isn’t there. However, the name “Kevin” sticks in Jeff’s brain, and when he goes out to buy some supplies for the house that he shares with his mother, he becomes fixated on a young man wearing a basketball jersey labeled “KEVIN.” He follows him blindly, in search of some sort of explanation for the series of events that led to their coincidental meeting. Meanwhile, his brother, an oblivious salesman in a marriage strained by his own mid-life crisis, is instructed by their mother to assist Jeff in his trek, and the two of them convene and find out a few things about their relationship, their family, and their respective “destinies.”
As written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, who previously helmed Cyrus and The Puffy Chair, this film is not what one would call a “crowd-pleaser.” There are no gross-out gags, no grand speeches at the altar, or flamboyantly gay sidekick characters. I have heard multiple opinions, from moviegoers and professionals alike, along the lines of, “Well, it’s good for what it is.” This is a shame; this film has way more insight into the life of the average American than, let’s say, The Descendants or Segel’s upcoming The Five-Year Engagement, and creates a portrait of a very small, yet completely whole family unit that is both grotesque and familiar in equal measures. The film takes place over the course of a single day, dictated by events instigated by Jeff’s constant search for meaning, and like Jeff, the film is shaggy, well-meaning, and loving. While not as laugh-out-loud funny as last year’s Our Idiot Brother, the presentation of Jeff’s family rings more true than Ned and his sisters and the series of events feel far more organic and less contrived. While the film revolves around a family, no one has children, and there is a large amount of attention placed on the lost opportunities and failed dreams of these Baton Rouge citizens. A subplot with Jeff’s mother, in which a secret admirer silently pursues her IM account from another computer in her office, is sweet and unexpected, offering a glimmer of hope while also honestly acknowledging the loneliness of going into your golden years alone. The climax, while small in comparison to “big gesture” endings like the one in Segel’s upcoming Five-Year Engagement, is a powerhouse in its own way, and somehow, and subtly, provides pay offs for all of the central characters.
The Duplass Brothers were heralded in indie circles for their films The Puffy Chair and Baghead, but they really brushed with the mainstream once they used A-list actors John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in Cyrus, both redefining their actors’ personas and establishing them as serious dramatic talents in one fell swoop. Here, they are working with Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon, and all three are uniformly terrific. Ed Helms, in particular, eschews his oft-repeated goofy douche routine for something a little more reined in and sinister, spending his last pennies on a Porsche while blatantly ignoring his beleaguered wife’s pleads that they can’t afford it. He is still endearing and identifiable, but in a far more tragic and less sympathetic way than we’ve been used to, and a lot of that is due to the unsympathetically hostile way he treats his brother Jeff. Jeff, as played by Segel, is a guy who could be labeled as a “sad sack” if he wasn’t so high and spacey all the time. He is an easy guy to make fun of, but an even easier guy to dislike; when he gets mugged, the guilty look on his attacker’s face is just as tragic as was the event’s unfortunate inevitability. Segel specializes in this type of lovable, but stunted man-child, but his talents here are used to far greater, realer, and, as a result, even more hopeful and optimistic results than in lighter fare like The Five-Year Engagement or The Muppets. Susan Sarandon, as the mother, is absolutely luminous and adorable; simultaneously looking younger than she has in years and playing a character ultra-savvy of her age, she embraces her umpteenth “mom” role with a sympathetic, frustrated overtone that makes her little corner of the story a delightful tangent. Judy Greer is also terrific in her handful of scenes as Helms’ tortured wife. While she was once doomed to playing “ugly” freaks in such varied works as Arrested Development, Jawbreaker, The Specials, and What Women Want, it is great to see her taking on mature, prolific roles like this and her scene-stealing part in The Descendants. Matt Malloy and Rae Dawn Chong (of COMMANDO fame!!) show up as two of Sarandon’s coworkers, with Chong, in particular, showing a great maturity completely absent from her earlier work in movies like Soul Man and Beat Street. Shooting for a feeling of intimacy and familiarity on this level can only work if the right actors are in play; luckily for the Duplass Brothers, they happen to be in the enviable position to have the clout to get A-list actors, the intuition to choose the best ones, and the talent to get top-notch performances out of them.
Highly Recommended to fans of low-key character dramas like Greenberg, or the Duplass Bros. last pic, Cyrus. While not as biting and uncomfortably hilarious as that movie, this film manages to be a heartwarmer that is free of high-concept cheese and heavy on the begrudging affection and drab Americana that is more relatable to our everyday lives.