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On Movies: Relax and laugh with 'Jeff, Who Lives at Home'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2012 - Jung called it “synchronicity” – when supposed coincidences seem to hold deeper meaning. As in, “I was sitting all alone at a sidewalk café in Paris and who should walk up but my high-school girlfriend!”

But 30-year-old Jeff (Jason Segal), who lives in his mother’s basement, is a lot more familiar with Yoda than he is with Jung. And the way he describes his world view is the current banality, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Well,  maybe not everything.

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” which had its area premiere at last fall’s St. Louis International Film Festival, is a light, loping comedy that has a great deal of fun with the notion of a slacker's leisurely search for the meaning of life. Written and directed by the estimable Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, it is substantially less edgy than their recent dark comedies “Baghead” and “Cyrus,” but equally as entertaining.

At the beginning, after delivering a brief monologue on the profundities of the M. Night Shyamalan movie “Signs,” Jeff is loafing at home, not looking for a job, when the phone rings and the voice on the other end asks for “Kevin.” It is a wrong number – or is it? Jeff thinks it may be a sign. Reluctantly leaving the house on an errand for his mother (Susan Sarandon), who has threatened him with eviction, he keeps his eyes and ears open for the name “Kevin.”

He wanders about, encountering a Kevin or two and, eventually, he runs into his brother, Pat (Ed Helms), an uptight paint salesman who is having marital problems, in part because he just bought a Porsche he cannot afford. Then the two aging boys spot Pat’s wife with another man and pursue the couple.

Meanwhile, at her cubicle-infested office, the boys’ mother is flattered to discover that she has a secret admirer, one who has access to the office messaging system. She begins a cautious binary flirtation, one that escalates into slapstick when her mysterious, impatient suitor takes decisive action to drive everyone else out of the office to assure that the two of them can be alone.

The movie proceeds from there at a lope, never moving too fast, the brothers trusting that character development, a well-tuned sense of humor and the occasional brief car chase will carry us happily to the farcically heroic climax, when everything and everybody comes together.

The young Duplass brothers are blessed with superb comic timing and a fine sense of how to show character through nuanced action. And their cast, which includes Judy Greer as Pat’s understandably grumpy wife, is first-rate. I have to say, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is the most purely entertaining movie I’ve seen since “The Artist.”

Opens Friday March 16


Loved the clothes.

“W.E.,” Madonna’s turgid ode to love among the top layer of the trans-Atlantic upper crust, was nominated for an Academy Award for its costumes, and deservedly so. The dresses are spectacular, particularly the ones from the 1930s, when an American divorcee named Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) married King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) and got him demoted to Duke of Windsor. And when the photographers flash bulbs begin exploding, the Duke and Duchess duck into a vintage Rolls Royce limousine that would probably cost a fellow a pretty Picasso.

The furniture is terrific, also.

Otherwise, we have a muddled and hard-to-swallow story about an abused Park Avenue psychiatrist’s wife (Abbie Cornish), named Wallis by her parents because they worshipped the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who obsesses so strongly about Wallis Simpson that she haunts an auction-house exhibition of the Duke and Duchess’s stuff, fingering the table linens and fondling the jewelry.

Eventually, inspired by the exhibition, “Wally” begins holding quietly intense conversations with her dead namesake. She also finds refuge from her rat of a husband in the kindness and eventually the arms of a poor but handsome auction-house guard. Right.

The time frame keeps switching back and forth between Wallis in the 1930s and Wally in the 1990s, and we are asked to see the parallels between the stories of the two women. I didn’t see them, other than the fact that both are slim brunettes who wear some pretty terrific gowns. Meanwhile, director Madonna keeps doing swirling 360s with the camera, giving us plenty of angles from which to appreciate the clothes and furniture. Periodically, she will throw us a pregnant pause, or blast us with music in an attempt to milk emotion out of an essentially inert story.

By the end of the movie, we are being asked to feel sorry for Wallis Simpson, who was a jet setter before there were jets, because she couldn’t leave the mansion without mobs of photographers and tabloid reporters descending upon her and her British husband like locusts. Hmmmm.

Opens Friday March 16

'Crazy Horse'

“Crazy Horse” is, at times, a visual marvel, with nude female dancers lit in red and green and orange gyrating against a black background. In the camera lens, the bodies of these beautiful French women, who are dancing in the dark at the venerable Paris nightclub called the Crazy Horse Saloon, become visually abstracted. In the most striking scene, early in the movie, the dancers are facing away from the camera and swaying, and their lit bottoms, surrounded by darkness, seemingly become detached from their bodies and float like bubbles of flesh, bathed in giant polka dots. The routine is called “Baby Buns.”


Unfortunately, although the documentary from time to time provides additional graphically strong scenes of lithe bodies, twisting and turning in dazzling light, the device becomes monotonous fairly quickly. And most of the rest of the movie concerns itself with rehearsals and backstage details that veteran director Frederick Wiseman never really brings to life, perhaps because he fails to interests us in the characters behind the scenes. The dancers themselves remain in the main anonymous, objectified. Maybe that’s Wiseman’s point, but I tend to think of it as his failure. 

Wiseman, 82, was a pioneer in cinema verite, the fly-on-the-wall approach to filmmaking. He is best known for his early documentaries, beginning in 1967 with a powerful inside look at a mental hospital (“Titicut Follies”) that may well have contributed to the era’s changes in psychiatric practices. He continued with documentaries about such institutions as a high school, a police department and a welfare center, among others. More recently he has shown a fascination with the human body in motion, directing such documentaries as “Ballet” (1995), “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet” (2009) and “Boxing Gym” (2010).

His forte has always been picking out and spot-lighting individuals, human beings, within the tangle of a bureaucratic organization. With “Crazy Horse,” we learn fairly quickly that the dancers are “modest” (they don’t like to act provocatively toward one another), that the general director sees his mission as providing a “classy, chic” show, that the artistic director thinks he is creating great art, and that the shareholders are mainly interested in the Euros. That’s about it. Despite some stunning visual moments, there is not really enough content to sustain “Crazy Horse” for its two hours and 14 minutes, and it becomes tiresomely repetitious.

Opens Friday March 16

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