Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a wonderful, funny, heartfelt fantasy that feels like reality because the characters are so warm and personable.

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The deets:

Released May 11, 2012

Written by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

Directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

Starring Susan Sarandon, Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Rae Dawn Chong, Judy Greer, Steve Zissis, and Evan Ross

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Jeff (Segel) is 30 years old and lives in his mother’s basement. He believes that everybody and everything in the universe is connected and that everything happens for a purpose. He asks a question early on that defines his day and this movie, “What if there are no wrong numbers?”

Jeff’s brother, Pat (Helms), seems to have a job at a place called Poplar Paint, but we never see him there. He has an unsatisfying marriage with Linda (Greer) and they both admit that their marriage is in trouble. This might be mostly Pat’s fault, as he is continually seeking things that make him feel he has accomplished more in his life than he really has. For instance, he and his wife are barely scraping by, but he buys a Porsche.

Jeff and Pat’s widowed mother, Sharon (Sarandon), works in a cubicle and is fed up with her sons. She is isolated and so she is taken way aback when she suddenly has a secret admirer at her job.

Sharon has asked Jeff to get off his sedentary butt and fix the shutter, giving him money to go buy some wood glue. We never really learn why Jeff lives at home and why he seems so resistant to going outside. We do know that he watches Signs several times a day and that he is expecting the world to give him a sign of some kind for what his destiny might be.

When Jeff gets a phone call asking for Kevin, ostensibly a wrong number, he feels that the universe might have just given him a sign. Finally convinced that he should go buy wood glue, he heads out and soon sees a kid with the name Kevin on his shirt. This starts him on a journey of what others might see as coincidence but that for Jeff is simply the opening up to him of his destiny.

Jeff soon runs into Pat and we see that Pat thinks very little of his seemingly lazy, aimless brother. Pat’s problems with his wife, Karen, get worse as these brothers spend their day together, trying to figure out what is going on.

At the same time, Sharon and her friend Carol (Chong) discuss Sharon’s secret admirer, with somewhat unexpected results that help Sharon realize that living a life of joy is more of a choice than a result of the universe’s efforts.

The journey Jeff and Pat are on at times is a little madcap, at other times dramatic, and at other times quietly introspective. Everything comes together as Sharon and Pat both decide that finding love and happiness is a matter of choice and overcoming fear– and Jeff finds what he decides must be his destiny, although the audience understands that his destiny was to help his family be happy.

Critique

Jeff, Who Lives at Home would have been a waste of celluloid and money if not for the impressive performances of Sarandon, Chong, Greer, Helms, and particularly Jason Segel. There’s no winking at the audience by the performers or the writers/directors. This story is to be taken on its face, not as a parable, allegory, or fantastical absurdism. This approach works because Jason Segel captures Jeff’s simple purpose in each moment of screen time. You get the feeling that the part was written for Segel.

Seriously, this is a simple film that isn’t trying to preach a message of carefree, chill-out living. Instead, the Duplass brothers created a unique character in Jeff and simply explored what this day would be like if he were to follow his desire to find his destiny in a world populated by his unhappy brother and mother.

Thus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is very much a character and dialogue-driven movie. What action there is happens simply because the characters made a choice that led them to sometimes dangerous results. There are moments of hilarity, quiet warmth and wisdom, and excellent honesty. It’s a marvelous thing to see the characters come to understandings in the moment of open, honest communication; you almost feel as if the Duplass brothers discovered these truths at the same time that they were writing the dialogue.

Watch this movie. It will take less than 90 minutes of your time and you will be left with a deep feeling of tenderness for these people.

Content warnings: Some salty language and very minor violence.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

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Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank has an engaging premise and traipses along at a brisk pace, but as the third act rolls around, it loses momentum and then the ending wanders listlessly. At least Frank Langella is great.

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The deets:

Released September 19, 2012

Written by Christopher D. Ford

Directed by Jake Schreier

Starring Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, Rachael Ma, James Marsden, and Jeremy Sisto.

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Frank (Langella– yeah), is an aging and supposedly retired cat burglar. He is beginning to lose his mental faculties and is kind of a slob, so his son (Marsden) gets Frank a robotic servant (the voice of Sarsgaard with Ma in the robot) to help around the house and make sure Frank eats well and stays safe. Meanwhile, Frank’s other child (Tyler) is far away but is not happy about Frank’s son dropping off a robot. She may be a little prejudiced against them.

Frank quickly learns that his new robot butler can pick locks and he hatches a plan to rob some local pretentious jackwagons of their massively expensive jewelry. It’s possible he wants to do this to sort of get back at these people for changing the local library so much that it might put the pretty librarian (Sarandon) out of a job.

So Frank and the robot go about their caper. Unfortunately, the local cops, led by the Sheriff (Sisto), know that Frank is a ‘retired’ burglar, so the attention goes onto him. So we then have a bit of a heist/escape film.

Which then turns into a semi-tragicomic wandering exploration of dementia and friendship.

Critique

Robot & Frank starts well, with a scene of Frank robbing a house. Look closely at the scene after– What house was Frank robbing?

So we get an idea that he might be losing his mind, but soon after that, we learn that Frank is still sharp and still has hopes and dreams. He has a crush on the local librarian and spends his time reading and walking. Langella is a very accessible actor and he quickly establishes depth and realism for Frank’s character. Marsden is also very good with his frustrated devotion to his father– he wants to help but understands when his dad pushes back and fights for his independence. Tyler is also good as the daughter who decides that her brother is screwing everything up.

The writing is sharp, at least to begin with. There is some very nice dialogue between Frank and the robot and their interactions serve to shine a light on how friendship works and just who these characters are. We also get to see a bit of the toll aging takes on a vital, dynamic person.

Everything is lighthearted and fun, even the escape sequences, until we end up with Frank in a new place and we are not sure what just happened. Was the entire film a roundabout essay on dementia? Who was the librarian, after all?

When significant plot questions are posed but unanswered (ala Inception), that’s like having a gun on a mantle and not firing it (thanks, Chekhov). It’s confusing and you begin to wonder what the point was.

If the point of Robot & Frank was to give Langella a chance to essentially do a clinic on light-touch acting, it worked out. If the story was to tell a quirky story about friendship and family, we don’t really know what the story being told was all about.

In the end, Robot & Frank is pretty much harmless, overall pointless entertainment. No punches, no big laughs, no emotional catharsis. All pretty tame, really. Recommended if you can see it without incurring extra costs.

Content warnings: A bit of salty language. 

Writing: 3          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3.5

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Snitch

Snitch is a surprisingly effective movie, mainly because Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson pulls off emotional depth quite well. We already knew he had good comedic timing; now maybe he’s transforming into a very good all-around actor.

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The deets:

Released February 22, 2013

Written by Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Starring Susan Sarandon, Melina Kanakaredes, Dwayne Johnson, Rafi Gavron, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Benjamin Bratt, Michael K. Williams, and Nadine Velazquez

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

John Matthews (Johnson) is a former truck drive who lost his family to the job and is now running a construction transportation company. His teenage son, Jason (Gavron), who has been raised by Matthews’ ex-wife Sylvie (Kanakaredes), was set up by a friend and has been arrested on drug charges. Minimum sentencing laws determine that the young Jason will be in jail for 10 years, unless he helps the DA’s office find other offenders and make arrests.

Except Jason doesn’t actually know anyone in the drug business, since he was set up. Now John has to decide how far he will go to help his mostly innocent son not have to spend 10 years in jail. So John makes a deal with the DA, Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon), that he will infiltrate the local drug dealing cabal and help the DA arrest the local kingpin, a fellow by the name of Malik (Williams). John finds Daniel, a guy with an ugly past who is trying to stay on the straight and narrow for his family, and convinces Daniel to introduce John to Malik so John can make a business proposal.

This goes well and soon John is a part of the business and leads the local vice guy, Cooper (Pepper), to Malik. But there’s a twist: Malik indicates that John might soon interact with the bigger drug cartel’s bosses. This is a catch that Cooper and Keeghan don’t want to pass up a chance at. So if John gets this cartel bigwig, Jason will be immediately released.

All of this sets up a tense final act in which John, who is putting himself and his new family in peril, has to try to outwit the drug cartel as well as a DA’s office that is using him perhaps too loosely.

And with all of this, the Rock, our Mr. Johnson, doesn’t swing even one punch and only fires a gun perhaps five times.

Critique

There’s no doubt that Dwayne Johnson has delivered his most interesting performance with Snitch. He’s got some depth and gets to delve into some emotions beyond wise-cracking muscle-head. He doesn’t get quite to the desperation we ought to be seeing from this guy, with the nuance of not wanting to fail his son like he spent his life doing, but he does pretty well. Happily, the rest of the cast is excellent, with Barry Pepper and Melina Kanakaredes turning in performances that shine. Rafi Gavron as the son, Jason, is convincing as well.

The movie doesn’t have a whole lot of new to offer beyond the Rock acting. That said, one of the nice subplots involves Daniel James, the reforming drug criminal, who is trying to keep his family by living clean but who has an opportunity to take a giant financial step if he helps John.

With the plot fairly workaday and not offering much in the way of surprise, the character building is where this movie really shines. Each person has a history and makes choices that affect what happens. Violence is not glorified but avoided. Brains and determination win the day.

I liked this movie. It’s not stupendous and doesn’t have quite the gritty polish it wanted, but it’s certainly effective and enjoyable.

Content warnings: Some salty language, a few scenes of violence which involve guns.

Writing: 4          Acting: 3.5           Overall: 3.5

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