2 “Cyrus + 1 “Signs” = 3 “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”
Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, seem to want American comedy to be more Gervaisian. Not Gervaisian, as in shock-the-black-tie-establishment, but more David Brent. In the wake of Steve Carrell’s send-off last year, most critics sided with Gervais’ Brent as the “better” manager of The Office, mostly because he was so hard to watch. Brent lacked any redeeming qualities, and was openly offensive at all turns. The American Office, they said, softened Brent into Michael Scott to be more palatable for American audiences.
No doubt, this is true—but this doesn’t make Brent better. Based on his lack skills and sheer offensiveness, who Brent got to be manager remains a mystery. In fact, how he stayed manager is a mystery. It may be telling that the British The Office ended after two seasons, as if it new it couldn’t keep the conceit aloft any longer.
In contrast, NBC’s version lasted eight season with Michael Scott, giving him the space to evolve as a fuller character. Early in the second season, the show answered the “how?” question in an episode where Michael Scott lands a big account after a drunken night at Chili’s. Over time, Michael never developed into a good boss, but clearly he’s an example of the “Peter Principle,” which states that employees will be promoted to a level just above their competence. His awkward stemmed not from a post-frat pathological need to be liked (as with Brent), but from deep reservoirs of sadness. The quintessential Michael Scott moment—and maybe the best statement on modern ennui in American comedy—is in the B.J. Novak-written, Harold Ramis-directed episode “Safety Training,” where Michael tries to deliver a lesson about the dangers of depression in office life (after Darryl laughs off this “danger” during a warehouse safety training session), but ends up having to be talked down from building.
The Duplass brothers traffic in the kind of comedy that’s not fit for mass American consumption. Last year’s “Cyrus,” for example, featured a rather Oedipal Jonah Hill clinging to MILFy mom Marisa Tomei, to the consternation of John C. Reilly, playing one of the those sad-sack and dateless John C. Reilly middle aged guys. Much of “Cyrus” was hard to watch because you simply can’t believe someone would have that lack of self-awareness. Like David Brent, it requires a special force of nature to plow through life like this. The horror of Cyrus and Brent characters is that they are like black holes that suck you into their gravity because they won’t change, so you end up playing by their rules.
“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” ups the ante: two mostly-estranged brothers with no self-awareness, who in the course of one day, swing into each other’s orbit. Ed Helms plays a stereo selling douche who lives in an apartment with his wife Judy Greer, but would rather buy a Porsche than take her to a nice restaurant or save for a down payment on a house. His brother Jeff smokes weed in his mom’s (Susan Sarandon) basement. She sends him out to get glue for a broken blind, and the story spins on Jeff’s obsession with fate. To explain this fully is give away the story, but in short, Jeff sees everything as a sign—in fact, his favorite movie is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs.” This is a ridiculous notion, as everybody who remembers the philosophy of that movie (the most wildly improbably plot points can be explained later by wildly improbable twists in the script).
Segel’s Jeff comes from the Rogen/Apatow school of sweet slackers, and Helms is the kind of guy who proves his manhood by taking clients to lunch at Hooter’s. He’s an ass—so much that you can’t really understand how he married a sweet girl like Judy Greer anyway. And that’s the problem with the Gervais/Duplass school of comedy. Yes, it’s challenging. Yes, it’s not sanitized for the mass prime time audience. But when people are so awful that you can’t explain how they got to where they are, you can’t explain the rest of the character either. The entire thing falls apart, except by the power of the script to explain things away. They’re the comedic equivalent of the aliens in “Signs”—suspenseful, yes, but the reason Judy Greer married this guy must be the same reason water-allergic aliens came to a planet that’s 80% water.