March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon bring comic conviction to 'Jeff'


“What do you do in the basement?” asks Jeff’s puzzled mom, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). “You’re not cleaning it.”

“Do you really want to know?” Jeff (Jason Segel) answers. “You didn’t like the last time we had this conversation.”

That’s not so surprising since the 30-year-old Jeff is a pothead, an M. Night Shyamalan fan and one of those “failure to launch” cases that never got his act together and took it on the road. Consequently, he remains “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”

Outside of his comfortable, comforting cocoon, Jeff is not so much a menace to society as he is an irritation to all around him, including his brother, Pat (Ed Helms), who has taken on the role of the upwardly mobile, happily married success story, but isn’t playing it particularly well these days. While Jeff may be spacey and unambitious, Pat has gone too far in the other direction, convincing himself that purchasing a Porsche will announce to the world that he is truly someone to be reckoned with. Linda (Judy Greer), his quietly exasperated and frosty-eyed wife, does not agree.

When Pat and Jeff team up to learn Linda’s secrets, the movie threatens to turn into broad farce. But, aside from a few detours into slapstick, writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass shrewdly keep the comedy relatively small-scale and grounded, allowing the performers to power the picture.

Many stretches of dialogue were improvised by the cast (the Duplasses prefer to keep their scripts on the sketchy side) and much it is clever and true to the characters. After Jeff blurts out one of his typically whacked-out observations, a simultaneously mystified and semi-impressed Pat responds, “What you just said sounded like Yoda took acid and stumbled into a business meeting.”

Despite the title, “Jeff” is more or less evenly divided between Jeff, Pat and Sharon (who, in a nice surprise, gets a solid subplot of her own), three souls challenged to move beyond their usual routines. The Duplasses have taken what might have been easy-to-ridicule stereotypes — the underachieving stoner, the status-symbol-worshipping Yuppie, the long-suffering mom — and asked Segel, Helms and Sarandon to build them into believable, albeit flawed people. They succeed so well that instead of getting cheap laughs at the expense of the family, we end up caring about them. Much in the way life continually seems to take Jeff by surprise, the jovial “Jeff” might give viewers more than they expect as well.