You begin with a character discussing the merits, the enduring and compounding brilliance, of Signs. He marvels over the way the pieces of that film, the randomness and the chance, all collude to create a perfect moment for the characters to meet the challenges in their lives. It’s a moment of humor, because of the obviousness of that movie and the odd joy he takes in discovering it, but it also serves to highlight the difference between that film and your story, which also deals in chance.
Whereas Signs pushed forward the idea that things would simply work out, that events would conspire to give answers and lead to conclusions, you take a different tact. You put forward the idea that the signs may take you to a time and place, but the drive to act has to come from an innate desire to make something happen, to create or maintain something you desire. A noble idea, but something that a film could have trouble putting across in an entertaining or honest way.
Luckily, assembled in your favor is a cast of actors and artists who are more than capable of pulling off this feat.
Jeff, played with conviction and misleading naiveté by Jason Segal, lives in the basement of his mother’s house, waiting for a sign from the universe as to what he should be doing with his life. He is inert, taking in all things, but never knowing how to act. His brother Pat (an against-type Ed Helms) is a man with a stalled marriage and aspirations at something larger with no idea how to get there, but plenty of will to try anything. He is cynical and dismissive of his brother’s idealism and his wife Linda’s (Judy Greer) trepidation regarding their marriage, and is so wrapped up in his search for something better that he fails to take in the damage he is causing. Meanwhile, their mother (Susan Sarandon) toils in her office job, bemoaning her sons, and missing her long-dead husband.
These characters are not unhappy, per say, though their place in life is far from rosy or sunny. They strike the tone of real people, satisfied if not vaguely bewildered with their current positions, and waiting for the thing that will drive them to something better. Jeff, obviously, embodies this idea in the most literal sense, but in a way each character is driven to all manner of immobility by their lack of an obvious path. The character of Jeff is a tricky entity to pull off, yet between the script and Segal’s endearing performance, his journey and the reasons for his outlook are not only believable, but seemingly without alternative.
To set it all down on paper (so to speak) like that makes it sound as though your tale would be filled with dour, depressing moments, but writing/directing duo Mark and Jay Duplass know that tragedy and comedy are a hair’s breadth apart. It is amazing that between their writing, their direction, and the grounded performances of their principle actors, they manage to maintain a single tone while deftly moving between highs and lows of human experience.
They do this by ensuring that every beat in the story is a character-generated event. As with most of their films, they create moments of strange and earthy comedy, molded around the very heart of their characters. They feel like friends with quirks we know innately, and every laugh comes from that deep, personal place that we reserve for those we know well and feel comfortable poking fun at. Yet that same comfort and familiarity allows for us to become quickly and deeply invested in those characters, and to feel the full brunt of their struggles and empathize and invest in those trials completely.
I can’t really think of much bad to say about you at all, really. There will be those who respond to Jeff and his unblinking idealism much as his brother Pat does – with protective cynicism and confounded disbelief – but I was won over by him and the infectious manner in which he brings this trust in the universe and his place in it to those around him. I was entertained, uplifted, and unerringly delighted by our time together, and I look forward not only to seeing you again, but also whatever films your creators and actors come up with next.
With boundless enthusiasm,
Brian J. Roan