When the media began to co-opt the sixties counter-culture’s anti-establishment message and turn it into advertising slogans and the marketing of tie-die shirts, you knew it was the beginning of the end for any serious purpose the movement may have embodied. If the Duplass Brothers’ slacker comedy, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is any indication, the corporate culture is now looking to trivialize and exploit the bourgeoning interest in spirituality. While the film promotes sound ideas of spiritual connection and a purposeful universe, it turns them into a meaningless jumble of clichés, using them only as a device to market a contrived and artificial commercial product.
As the film opens, Jeff (Jason Segal), a 30-year-old slacker living in his mother’s basement, is talking into a tape recorder. He tells us his belief (which is flashed on the screen) that we are all connected, that everything happens for a reason, and that we have to look out for “signs” that will lead us to our destiny. To support his philosophy, he points to the 2002 movie “Signs,” although, in reality, that film was not about looking for signs from the universe at all, but about crop circles and hostile aliens. The fact that Jeff is dictating while sitting on the toilet is an early indicator of the value the film places in his message. When Jeff is on the receiving end of a hostile phone call looking for someone named Kevin, he decides that there is a purpose behind the wrong number.
While on the bus, he sees a young black basketball player (Evan Ross) wearing the name Kevin on his shirt. Thinking that this must mean something, he follows Kevin to a pick-up basketball game and begins a conversation with him after the game. Inviting Jeff to join him in smoking weed, Kevin sets him up for a mugging in a scene that has the smell of a racial comment. Jeff’s older brother Pat (Ed Helms) is the 180-degree opposite in personality, but they share a set of dysfunctional values. Pat is a clueless and self-absorbed paint salesman who reveals to his wife Linda (Judy Greer) that he has just made a bold move and bought a Porsche without first discussing it with her. Her goal was to buy a new house and perhaps have a family and she is aghast at what she considers a reckless and unnecessary expenditure.
A series of hapless misadventures then take place in which the two brothers relentlessly (and often hilariously) pursue Linda after she is seen having a conversation with another man. There is also an unlikely sub-plot involving the boys’ mother (played by the great Susan Sarandon) and her co-worker Carol (Rae Dawn Chong), a sequence that, while well-done, seems to have been thrown into the mix only for the sake of political correctness. I will not say where all of this sitcom-like film ends up but if you are familiar with movie clichés, you can probably guess.
Although the cast of Jeff, Who Lives at Home is excellent, they are let down by a weak script and a concept that appears to be used only to justify irresponsible behavior. A melodramatic sequence near the end may indicate the narcissistic Jeff’s sudden awareness that it is possible to give of oneself to support other people, but the odds are against it. While the idea that we are all connected and that things happen for a reason is valid and has been around for thousands of years, it is ultimately only valuable as context not content, as an experience rather than as a belief system. It does not and should not replace individual and personal responsibility.
While it is important to recognize guidance in having our intentions realized, sitting back and waiting for signs to give us direction is like waiting for a bus that runs only at very intermittent intervals. The idea of Deepak Chopra that we should, “Pay attention, look for clues, decipher their meanings, and eventually the truth will be revealed” is erroneous. We are not Sherlock Holmes. There is nothing to decipher. The truth will not be revealed. It has already been revealed. Our life is the truth, one that cannot be understood but can only be lived — every moment.