Wednesday, March 21, 2012

He Needs to Talk About Kevin

Fiction is an inadequate medium to address ideas of fate. A story is crafted, hopefully with care, by a writer with an intent in his plotting, a method to his sadness. Drama is ultimately about creating expectations in a story and then meeting, subverting, or at least addressing them in some way. Chekhov's third act firing gun and all that. Real life, as was elsewhere noted regarding the fictions of Mike Daisey, is decidedly not intentional. We all have expectations, but the universe is at best haphazard in dealing with them in any meaningful way. Life is less a tightly-wound plot than a freewheeling improvisation. Thus is it all the more impressive that Jeff, Who Lives at Home is as entertaining and successful as it is, being as it also is a warmed-over meditation on the 'everything happens for a reason' philosophy of the movie Signs.

That's not a joke, except that it is. The very first thing we see, after some intentionally "deep" text as said by the titular Jeff, is Jeff himself (Jason Segel) elaborating on the profundities of Signs, into a tape recorder, while he's on the toilet. It's an amusing introduction to the character, a 30-year-old man-child that Seth Rogan might have played a few years ago, who lives in his mother's basement and smokes pot all day, and who takes a random caller asking about a "Kevin" to be a sign that he should follow every Kevin he can, to find his path in life. He sets out to buy some wood glue to fix a wooden slat in the closet door for his widowed mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon)--who amid her own mid-life malaise tries with the help of her friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong) to learn the identity of a secret admirer at work--and ends up running into brother Pat (Ed Helms), who seems to regard his wife Linda (Judy Greer) as a whiny medium through which to project his own ridiculously vain urges and desires, including a new, ill-advisedly purchased Porsche. Not at all surprisingly, the two brothers find out, Linda might be cheating on him.

It's a good setup that goes as far as it can until thematic necessities of destiny intervene with a climax and ending that, to this atheist anyway, too conveniently tie everything together and wrap it up. But it's a lot of fun while it lasts, thanks to the actors, who find great humor and warmth in characters that could easily be grating stereotypes--the lazy schlub, the asshole husband, the frazzled mother--as well as a perhaps a somewhat surprisingly sharp script. The creative team, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, hail from the Mumblecore indie film scene, noted for its barbarically lo-fi and improvisational filmmaking approach. The only other film of theirs I have seen, the comedy-horror Baghead, was as good a representative of the genre as could be hoped for, in that it succeeded in spite of its inherent indulgences.

Since going quasi-mainstream, the brothers have upped their technical ante, though not entirely. The script, on the one hand, is marvelously crafted, with the goofy and quirky indie humor balanced by the quiet desperation of the characters. The contrast between Jeff and Pat, total opposites in life motivation yet still finding themselves adrift without their father, is nicely handled. The laughs are frequently inventive too, with the stakes constantly escalating and great mileage being made of devices as varied as a parking ticket and a cell phone.

Less deftly handled is the camera, which if not actually handheld at least feels like it is. It moves with coffee-addled jitter, and most annoyingly zooms in and out constantly, as in at least twice a minute throughout the entire film. The first time it happens it's a lovely bit of comic exaggeration, but it wears out its welcome a minute later after the fourth or fifth use. It's adaptable eventually, in the way a person with Tourette's syndrome adapts to his body and facial tics, but its no less annoying for being so. It makes the movie rather an eyesore to watch, like Cloverfield without having the expectation beforehand of motion sickness, and mars what is otherwise a very entertaining comedy.

There's also, as mentioned, the goofy 'interconnectedness of the universe' cosmology that dictates its precedings, but in the end one either buys it or one doesn't. The film is enough of a hoot that it doesn't matter that its ideas are a conscious retread of M. Night Shyamalan's second best movie. It at least knows when it's being funny and ridiculous.

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