Tag Archives: Susan Sarandon

Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Reviewed by James, Who Watched at Home

The Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark) are the original kings of mumblecore, and, after a period of flirtation, they have apparently decided to embrace the mainstream with Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Starring Jason Segel as the Jeff of the title and Ed Helms as his brother Pat, the comedy-drama focuses on a family as they struggle to determine what exactly it is that they want. Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, and Rae Dawn Chong also star in the 2012 film.

Jeff is thirty years old and still living in his mother’s basement. He doesn’t have a job and it does not appear that he is looking for one, he smokes too much pot, and has seen the movie Signs by M. Night Shymalan too many times for comfort. According to him, Signs eventually reigns in all the meandering and contains one perfect moment, and, while I doubt the veracity of that statement, it leads him to his personal philosophy: eventually life will contain one perfect moment that makes up for everything that occurs leading up to it. He looks for signs in everyday life, and his marijuana-infused state of mind leads to conclude that the name Kevin will lead him to his destiny. His logic is oddly sound.

The wood-paneling doesn't work for me.

The wood-paneling doesn’t work for me.

Pat is Jeff’s older brother and he does not live at home. Pat is married to Linda (Judy Greer), who seems to be on the verge of finally reacting to the passive-aggressive back and forth her marriage has devolved into. Pat is the kind of guy who is solidly middle-class, goes to Hooters on his lunch break, and can be talked into actually believing that they are basically giving a Porsche away for free if there is only a small down payment. Eventually Pat and Jeff cross paths and Pat must finally confront the state of his marriage.

Sharon (Susan Sarandon), the mother of Jeff and Pat, is in a bit of a funk. She resents her kids, she’s bored in her job, and she hasn’t had sex since her husband died. So, when she starts getting messages from a secret admirer, she is more than a little skeptical of their intentions. Following some urging from her friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong), she decides to give it a go, though the result is quite surprising to her (but not us). As these kinds of movies tend to do, the main cast ends up in the same place at the same time, and things find a way to resolve themselves, for the time being at least.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a film extremely reliant on the contrivances of the script, and no matter how sparingly the Duplass brothers filmed it, that kind of thing does not go unnoticed. This is a rather short film, clocking in at just over eighty minutes, so the need to keep the plot moving at a reasonable clip is rather high, the but the manner in which it was done could have been more subtle. Jeff, as a character, seems to have embraced fate and the interconnected nature of the universe as a means to motivating himself, so the usage of things seemingly occurring by fate makes a degree of sense considering this film isn’t damning its title character, but it all just rang so hollow. Also: the subplot regarding Susan Sarandon’s Sharon and the coworker who secretly admires her was sweet but not affecting.

This trip to Hooters was not a hoot. That was bad, even for me.

This trip to Hooters was not a hoot.

Issues regarding the plot aside, Jeff, Who Lives at Home was a very well-acted film by all four principles. Jason Segel has been a bastion of comedic solidity (I really need to get this flowery writing in check) for over a decade now, and, despite the comedic bent of the film, is finally beginning to test his dramatic chops. As far as I can tell, Segel is fully up to the task and demonstrates this by spending much of the film either by himself or with the camera zoomed closely on his face.

Ed Helms is an actor defined by how comedic his intensity can become before it just becomes sad (note: the later seasons of The Office). In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Helms embraced the inherently pitiable, if frustrating, manner his characters typically act, and gave what may be his strongest performance to date. Helms’ willingness to let his characters be legitimately unpleasant and unlikable makes him a natural fit for the Duplass brothers, who have made something of a career out of mining the aspects about people that tend to annoy other equally annoying people.

Judy Greer is in many ways the ultimate supporting player in Hollywood. Indie or mainstream, television or film, she seems to pop up a few times a year to elevate whatever material she is tasked with working with. Her Linda is a frustrated woman, her marriage is failing and her husband has depleted the funds they had been saving to buy a house in order to purchase an ill-advised Porsche. So, if Linda were to have an affair with some guy who is willing to actually put in some effort and listen to her complain, no one would really blame her.

I can't tell if it is ketchup or catsup.

I can’t tell if it is ketchup or catsup.

The thing in this film is that Pat and Linda deserve each other. Linda complains that none of her friends like Pat, but admits it was she who poisoned them against him. Pat wants a wife who loves him, but can’t manage to actually love his wife. These are deep problems, and while a day of catharsis may help, some wounds just don’t heal. As can be expected, Jeff’s search for meaning and following of signs doesn’t lead him inwards, it leads him straight into the middle of the cold war between his brother and sister-in-law.

I didn’t like the ending of this movie. Maybe it is the pessimist in me, or maybe it is as someone who thinks a deus ex machina should be reserved for a Greek drama or something more irony-laden, but the ending just didn’t sit right. What occurs is a cop-out used to ensure a happy(ish) ending, and while I can appreciate the desire to end on a more positive note, it didn’t work for this viewer. I am perfectly content for something to end happily if it makes, well, sense, but the final few scenes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home just didn’t make all that much sense to me.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is Jay and Mark Duplass’ first legitimately mainstream film, and it is competently done if a bit disappointing. This film is demonstrative of many of the frequent pitfalls of independent cinema: it confuses the intimate for the unambitious, is content to be reflective rather than attempt something revelatory, and thinks a shaky camera is a good idea. The cast, primarily Jason Segel and Ed Helms, does an exceptional job and manages to elevate the material somewhat, but unlike Signs (this is Jeff’s opinion, not mine), all the meandering doesn’t actually manage to culminate into the one perfect moment they were clearly intending to achieve.

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Robot & Frank: Dementia, Heists, and Frank Langella

Robot & Frank is a film of little consequence and, seemingly, of little ambition: few have seen it, few will see it, and it will end up as a footnote in the careers of its superb cast comprised of Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Sisto, and, oh yeah, Frank Langella. I have something of a soft spot for films of little consequence, and there is a lot to like, and a lot to be disappointed in, about first-time director Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank: the relative plausibility of its science-fiction elements, the assured and understated direction, and, oh yeah, Frank Langella.

In the near future, a former cat burglar named Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone while dementia slowly, but noticeably, sets in. Frank makes routine trips to the library to pick up non-digital books, and also to flirt with the comely librarian (Susan Sarandon). His son Hunter, an accomplished attorney and family man, makes weekly, and increasingly frustrating, visits to see his stubborn father before he finally buys him a robotic companion and helper (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), a career philanthropist, makes short video-calls to her father from Turkmenistan. Frank’s determined stance against keeping the robot gradually softens as he realizes that the stimulating activities the robot forces him to partake in don’t necessarily have to be legal.

This is a poster.

This is a poster.

Robot & Frank is a simple film and it is content to be the film that it is, and not the film that it could have been. The film runs a tight eighty minutes and leaves itself little room for contemplation within its premise. Robot & Frank never delves into the relationship of Frank and the unnamed robot, at least not with any sort of depth. Frank is struggling to keep in control of his mind as he sees the past slipping away from him, while this robot he has bonded with (befriended isn’t quite the right word) keeps reminding him that he himself is just metal and programming and is perfectly content to maintain his current memory, or have it wiped should that benefit Frank. Frank’s desperation to see more than just an appliance in his partner-in-crime is tragic, potentially fascinating, and essentially glossed over.

Frank Langella’s performance is subtle, realistic, and just plain fantastic. This is Langella’s best performance since 2008’s Frost/Nixon and would be at least in the conversation for awards if it weren’t such a damnably small film. Langella plays Frank without fanfare or big speeches, he is a man trying to keep his mind from drifting away through the common methods of grit teeth and vehement denial. The extra spring in his step while he plots a heist is subtle but noticeable, the stone-faced manner in which he speaks to law enforcement is barely noticeable, but its there and it works. This is a quiet film, and Langella gives a quiet, affecting performance. He makes the film.

He's practicing picking locks. We all need our hobbies.

He’s practicing picking locks. We all need our hobbies.

The rest of the cast is competent in their limited roles. James Marsden’s Hunter is suitably frustrated by his father and his brow is almost never not furrowed, but the film is too short to allow for any real character arc there, aside from his mounting frustration. Liv Tyler as Frank’s daughter Madison is not onscreen enough for the audience to get a true impression other than that she has a breathy voice and that she is the sort of career-do-gooder people love to hate behind their backs, except for me (um, yeah). Sarandon continues to carve herself a niche as the distinguished love interest of distinguished (and) aging actors, and she’s doing it rather well, but there is just no substance to the role.

Peter Sarsgaard voices the titular robot, and he possesses a voice suitable for playing one of our future overlords. Comparisons to HAL 3000 are inevitable, but a better comparison is to the computer in Moon voiced by Kevin Spacey. In both of those films the technologically advanced companions of the lead possess a sort of detached helpfulness, and not a detached maliciousness. Sarsgaard is good as the robot, as he is in everything, and his conversations with Frank are amusing, but tinged with a sadness held by Frank, and projected onto the five-foot-or-so helper in front of him.

I can't say I love the wallpaper.

I can’t say I love the wallpaper.

Director Jake Schreier is surprisingly comfortable behind the camera in his feature length debut, and is, thankfully, willing to let the action occur without showy direction on his part. The film is good, if a bit shallow, and it definitely shows promise for future offerings from the first-time director. Though, I have to hope that he shows more ambition in his next undertaking, Robot & Frank is too comfortable being a well-made quirky indie, which it is, but those are a dime a dozen. Schreier avoids the typical first-time director pitfalls of trying to do too much, but he goes the other way and tries to do too little.

The futuristic touches the film has – the phones, the computer screens, the robots – are grounded enough that they are realistic extensions of our current technology, but they are also immediately distinguishable as not currently existing (except for maybe in prototype). The robot itself seemed a bit too dexterous given its block-like appearance, but that is a minor quibble with the otherwise well-handled science-fiction element in the film.

Robot & Frank is a decent film, but it takes its clever premise and does just enough with it to stretch out to feature length, when it should have spent more time delving into its concept. In the end, however, the film is worth seeing solely for the performance of Frank Langella, who carries the film on his shoulders and elevates a thin story to heights it wouldn’t have been able to reach without him.