It's really easy to hate mumblecore. Not the movies—just that name. A collection of like-minded low-budget indie films about 20-somethings (usually white and pasty) trying to find their way in the world, "mumblecore" calls to mind all the weakest tendencies in these movies—specifically, their ineffectual, rambling, mumbling meagerness. You can get a sense of how much people even within this so-called movement hate that label by how quickly they dismiss it in interviews. The reason's pretty obvious: "Mumblecore" suggests the epitome of Hipster White People Problems, and who wants to be associated with that?
Jay and Mark Duplass are part of mumblecore thanks to their great 2005 debut, The Puffy Chair, but like everyone else in the movement, they don't consider themselves part of any newfangled genre:
"Mark and I were just making movies," said Jay. "Like, we were just coming out of a cave and making movies. It was nice in 2005 when you're making a $15,000 movie and The New York Times writes it up and you're the creator of a movement—but we didn't create anything other than a movie."
They have good reason to want to distance themselves from mumblecore. For one thing, unlike a lot of movies of their ilk, the Duplass brothers' films incorporate professional actors, and they've worked with studios. Fox Searchlight released their 2010 dark comedy Cyrus—Ridley Scott produced it, for crying out loud—and their new film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, will be coming out through Paramount Vantage on Friday. Plus, their films often offer emotional depths and nuanced character portraits that go beyond the simple navel-gazing that critics associate with mumblecore. People who can't stand the movement's awkward preciousness will probably hate Jeff, Who Lives at Home on principle, but the film once again shows that what these guys do so well is not stare at their navels but actually observe the world around them.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home stars Jason Segel as Jeff, a pothead loser who's 30 and living in his widowed mother's (Susan Sarandon) basement. A huge fan of Signs, Jeff believes it's important to be open to the signals the universe is giving you so that you can recognize your destiny. And so the film follows him on one eventful day when an errand brings him into contact with his jerk brother Pat (Ed Helms), his wife (Judy Greer), and a few other random people who may or may not offer a clue into Jeff's purpose.
The Duplass brothers set us up to think that this is going to be a stoner comedy flavored with some dopey we're-all-connected seasoning reminiscent of Crash or Grand Canyon. But pretty soon it becomes clear that these guys want to get at something deeper: how families and relationships can deteriorate so slowly over time that we don't know they're in disarray until it's maybe too late. A comedy with a serious, sincere center, Jeff, Who Lives at Home doesn't paint Jeff as some enlightened fount of wisdom that can teach us all How To Live. (Nope, he's just some dude without a direction.) But with its sweet, gentle touch and incredibly lifelike interactions, the movie is more insightful about people than a dozen heavy-handed Oscar dramas.
This shouldn't be a surprise: Over the course of four films, the Duplass brothers have consistently set us up with certain expectations, only to surprise us with how much deeper their intentions are. (A fifth film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, just played SXSW.) Their first, The Puffy Chair, which starred Mark, was a road movie that transformed into an achingly affecting romantic drama. Their follow-up, Baghead, was a horror-comedy that was, in part, a satire of the indie film scene. Then came Cyrus, which on its surface was about a creepy overgrown man-child (played incredibly well by Jonah Hill) trying to get rid of his mom's (Marisa Tomei) new boyfriend (John C. Reilly. At its heart, though, the film was concerned with questions of loneliness and need. Because of their improvisational nature, these films can feel a little intentionally artless, but their commitment to being thought-provoking is never in question.
Their films' underlying sweetness is one of their best features, but the more that Mark Duplass has branched out as an actor in his own right, the more that the brothers' sincerity starts to become a hallmark of their work. After The Puffy Chair, Duplass got starring roles in other movies lumped into the mumblecore scene: Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs (with current indie queen Greta Gerwig) and Lynn Shelton's remarkable Humpday. There's a naturalness to him that's really lovely: Like in his movies with Jay, he's willing to wear his heart on his sleeve in a way that doesn't feel icky but, rather, candid and immediate. Honestly, Mark's acting career is really starting to take off when you consider that he's the lead in three films set to come out this year, including Shelton's touching follow-up, Your Sister's Sister, and the Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed, where he gives his most layered performance to date.
Deeply impressed by The Puffy Chair when it came out, I've been rooting for the Duplass brothers ever since. And while I've liked many other mumblecore movies—especially Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax—it's been clear for a while that the Duplasses were the most likely to take the scene's techniques and make them mainstream. I haven't seen enough of The League, the FX show starring Mark and his wife Katie Aselton (a filmmaker in her own right), but from the little I have, it seems to be the one false note in their career: a raunchy sitcom that isn't as funny, smart or engaging as, say, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It's possible, though, that it's a lot of people's introduction to Mark—and, by extension, the Duplass brothers. If that's the case, I hope they'll seek out Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which is the best film the brothers have made since The Puffy Chair. Mark isn't in it, but he and his brother's essence is all over it. And, hey, none of the actors mumble.