Jeff, Who Lives at Home is sweet, flawed, sincere

Jason Segel and Ed Helms see the signs.

Early moments in Jeff, Who Lives at Home portend a self-regarding, too-cute-by-half indie aesthetic. That it quickly turns out to be modest and sweet natured may be the most pleasant surprise in this predictable albeit charming film.

Jason Segel exudes sincerity in his performance as the title character, a naïve man-child who spends most of his time in his mother’s basement, smokes pot and believes the key to life is a willingness to listen when the universe starts dropping hints.

This predilection turns a simple trip to the hardware store into an afternoon adventure that includes a chance encounter with his uptight brother, Pat, played by Ed Helms (Cedar Rapids, TV’s The Office). Sporting a paint company dress shirt and goatee, Helms hits notes of comically sad middle-class frustration and mediocrity. Pat’s domestic life suffers when he foolishly purchases a Porsche he can’t afford, angering his alienated wife, Linda (Judy Greer). After spotting her getting into a car with another man, Pat persuades Jeff to help him follow her to confirm his suspicion of adultery.

The other storyline focuses on Jeff and Pat’s mom (Susan Sarandon), whose day at the corporate cubicle farm is given a dose of excitement when she receives coy instant messages from a secret admirer. A meeting at the office water cooler elicits embarrassed laughter, but a soaking under emergency sprinklers feels more like an obligation to theme than a believable moment.

Coproduced by Jason Reitman (Young Adult, Up in the Air), Jeff treads the familiar indie territory of characters adrift in the existential soup, coping with the banality of urban America. As they deal with characters who have distanced themselves from their own pain and pleasure, directors Jay and Mark Duplass display a light touch that provides welcome relief from the film’s heavy-handed structure.

That light touch also helps keep Jeff, Who Lives at Home from crumbling under the weight of its construction. Holding it all together is Segel, whose large, expressive face and sensitive characterization give resonance to the movie’s themes of connectedness and harmony.