It’s a Sign: Processing Inspiration in JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME
6 January 2013
“Everyone and everything is interconnected in this universe. Stay pure of heart and you will see the signs. Follow the signs, and you will uncover your destiny”
This is the epigraph that starts the Duplass Brothers (Mark and Jay) latest film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012). As suggested by the title, this independent dramedy primarily captures a day in the life of Jeff (Jason Segel), a 30-year-old man who lives at home. As an adolescent Jeff’s father died, and since then depression stopped Jeff from moving forward, so he resides in the basement of his mother’s home. However, Jeff admits he always thought his father’s death happened for a reason, albeit a reason he struggles to understand. Connected to this is Jeff’s unshakably strong belief in Fate, which further connects to his adoration of M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs. According to Jeff, signs are all around us, even though they are almost impossible to understand most times, and Jeff follows these signs, trusting them blindly, because the signs lead to Fate.
So, on this ordinary day in Jeff’s life he receives a call from a wrong number. The caller asks for Kevin, but no Kevin lives in Jeff’s home. Jeff takes this as a sign. Next, Jeff’s mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), calls requesting Jeff head to Home Depot for some wood glue because a shutter broke off the kitchen pantry. When Jeff leaves the house, literary in pursuit of a resolution to a problem, he inadvertently embarks on a metaphorical journey toward a bigger resolution, one that tests his commitment to his beliefs and, eventually, leads him to his Fate. Jeff sees another sign and follows a stranger, named Kevin, which coincidently—or perhaps not, as Jeff does not believe anything is a coincidence—causes Jeff to run into his brother, Pat (Ed Helms). This same day Pat happens to find out his wife, Linda Greer), may be having an affair; therefore Pat relies in Jeff as advice giver, supporter, and even punching bag at various moments in the day. Jeff’s journey continues because, in being there for his brother, he happens across the wreckage of a terrible automobile accident on bridge, an accident so bad that one vehicle was thrown off the bride and into the murky waters below. A father and his two small children are trapped, drowning, in the car. Perhaps remembering how in Signs it is the water that saves everyone, Jeff suddenly realizes his Fate.
The strength of Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the writing. Written by the Duplass directors, Jeff, Who Lives At Home is inspirational and heartwarming. In all, this is the story of a person who stays true to himself, despite the opposition he experiences from those around him. Jeff keeps unremitting faith in signs, even though he does not always understand them. Parallel to that, witnessing Jeff’s unfaltering security in his own belief system gives the audience faith in Jeff, even though viewers don’t always understand him. Jeff perseveres with the signs, and the audience perseveres with Jeff. Witnessing someone inspired is, in fact, inspiring. Moreover, witnessing someone true to him or herself is heartwarming.
By the plot’s conclusion the film recuperates entirely, which symbolizes the long overdue recuperation of its characters. The film begins with a broken shutter on a kitchen pantry, but it is more than the pantry shutter that fell apart; Linda, Pat, Sharon, and Jeff, have all fallen apart in their respective ways. However, this one day changes all that. Pat and Linda’s marriage had to completely break before they could begin fixing it. Sharon needed to breakdown in her office’s bathroom before she could fix herself, along with Carol’s help. And, of course, Jeff. Jeff never knew how to fix himself after the loss of his father. Yet, when the signs led him to the bridge he allowed out the (anti)hero hidden within. The only remedy for his lost father was a found father, and Jeff said goodbye to one father by saving another.
Moreover, Sharon, Pat, and Jeff all have a rebirth symbolized by water in this film, again echoing Shyamalan’s Signs. The sprinkles showering Sharon in her office offer her rebirth, and Pat’s jump into the water after his brother rebirths him as well. And, most evident, Jeff’s near death in the water when saving the drowning family strongly symbolizes a rebirth, which allows him to part from his past, troubled self.
All of this recuperation completes in the film’s concluding shot when Jeff walks up to the pantry, with the glue his mother requested he buy, and fixes the broken shutter. Like the pantry, the characters are repaired, and that is truly inspiriting and heartwarming.
In fact, the story’s strength is so solid it compensates for any minor cinematic instability. The Duplass Brothers are still slightly stronger screenwriters than directors, and with Jeff, Who Lives at Home the handheld camerawork and quick zooms littering the film do not compliment the narrative and nearly muddy the film’s tone. Remembering that cinematography is entirely for the audience, as characters in any film are traditionally oblivious to the audience, and always oblivious to how the audience sees them, cinematography should work in harmony with a script’s tone so what the plot details aligns with how the plot is visually detailed. Shaky camera and quick zooms, like those in Jeff, Who Lives at Home typically signify a frantic moment, and almost always build anxiety for viewers. This is not the intended effect in the Duplass Brother’s film; what the intentions behind these cinematic choices are remain unclear. It seems the effect is used simply to defy convention stylistically. Breaking convention can be successful, but not if the break is just for break’s sake. It seems the Duplass Brothers put their cinematic stamp of Jeff, Who Lives at Home by challenging the norm and/or expectation of cinema, but, in this case, challenging the norm, such as with the zoom, did not compliment the story.
Luckily for Jeff, Who Lives at Home the story being told is so strong, so inspiring, and so heartwarming that any inconsistency in how the story is told falls to the wayside. In the end, all the remains is the lasting echo of the epigraph that started it all, “stay pure of heart…follow the signs…uncover your destiny,” like Jeff, who lives at home.