Thursday, March 22, 2012

Those Duplass brothers make movies with heart

Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens with Jason Segel talking into a tape recorder.

At first, you think it's supposed to mean that Segel's character, Jeff, is an idiot. He's talking about the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs. Particularly about the perfect synergy of coincidences in its final scene -- you know, the scene where Joaquin Phoenix uses a baseball bat to smash a bunch of unfinished glasses of water, thereby killing a bunch of aliens. Sorry if I just ruined Signs for you.

The most obvious and snarkiest way to play this scene is to use Jeff's love for the movie Signs -- which he admits to watching at least a half-dozen times -- as proof that he is someone to pity or laugh at. (Never mind that I'm with Jeff, not to the extent that he is, and notwithstanding that last scene in particular.)

But if you think Jay and Mark Duplass would go that way, you don't know Jay and Mark Duplass.

They love their character Jeff, and they love that he loves Signs. In fact, I'm not even sure they disagree with him. Maybe they love Signs too.

In both of their last two films, the previous being Cyrus, the Duplass brothers have managed a pretty nifty balancing act. They are adhering to the modern-day Apatow-infused comedy sensibilities enough to provide good material for the trailers, but secretly taking the movie itself in their own direction, one with an unexpected amount of heart. (This is not to imply that Apatow's movies don't have heart, but they don't have the raw, genuine, unfiltered heart that Duplass movies do.)

The Signs bit is a good example. If any part of that bit appeared in the trailer, though I believe it does not, it would be used to demonstrate that Jeff is a geek or a loser -- not very cool, someone who loves a director as played out as M. Night Shyamalan. In fact, you could take that one step further and say that the entire title Jeff, Who Lives at Home is intended to give you this impression, that Jeff is a man child who has never matured, who loves getting stoned and watching movies appreciated by geeks in his mother's basement.

Some of this is true. But the reasons he's never matured are not part of the realm of comedy. And Jeff's home? He's barely there at all.

I love this about the Duplass brothers, that they are kind of baiting and switching us for our own benefit. Cyrus did not play like many people thought it would play, as kind of a Step Brothers lite. (Though I might not have minded that, because I love Step Brothers.) Many people surely thought that John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill would spend the running time of Cyrus playing cruel pranks on each other in their desperate attempts to win Marisa Tomei's love. That stuff is in play, but not nearly to the extent you'd think it would be. And the supposed big set piece, in which Reilly and Hill come out the door of a wedding reception fighting, is a deadly serious, tragic moment -- as it would be in real life.

Mixing tragedy in with their comedy is what earns the Duplass brothers their heart. And without these difficult moments of real pain, the heart that fills the stretch run of Cyrus wouldn't be so satisfying. But don't be confused -- when I say "heart," I don't mean "shmaltz." I mean a genuine affection for the characters and a genuine, honest approach to a truly satisfying catharsis.

I won't say if Jeff, Who Lives at Home ends that way, because it just came out and you should see it. However, you can guess from my tone that I'm very satisfied with how it ends -- and with the movie in general.

And if something about the structure of this movie ends up resembling a little M. Night Shyamalan movie about aliens allergic to water, it's all the more proof of the Duplass brothers' refreshing disdain for cynicism.

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