The title tells you a lot about what sort of movie this might be: downtrodden, acerbic, commuting between office parks and Mom's basement. And for the first 45 minutes, it confirms those suspicions in spades. In fact, Jeff, Who Lives at Home begins to feel like the apotheosis of the festival-shopped indie comedy. It's directed by the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus), who are more famed for spasmodic camera zooms than for any jokes. It features Hollywood clowns who've scrubbed off all their greasepaint to show the troubled lines on their faces. The larger film, actually, feels scoured with whatever industrial solvent they use at the end of the day in Hooters restrooms. 

Jason Segel plays Jeff, Baton Rouge bong aficionado and holy fool. It often seems like he's using acting tips garnered from one of the more slack-jawed, tattered Muppets: Sweetums, say. Ed Helms, as his goateed brother Pat, is merely doing a Danny McBride imitation and, as much as I love Eastbound & Down, I don't think we need a second Danny McBride. They are paired on an adventure—well, Jeff sees it as an adventure; Pat sees it as an aggravation and then a crisis—because Jeff answers what he contends is a cosmically significant wrong-number call for somebody called Kevin, while Pat has sussed that his wife (the perpetually underused Hope Davis) is cheating on him. This requires inept tailing missions, with Jeff riding the back of a passing truck. They get calls from their mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who is exasperated and has maybe built a life on expecting exasperation.

Then the movie makes an unlikely pirouette, and becomes something bewitching and lovely.

It makes the switch in two moves. "This is not how I imagined my life was going to be," says Sharon, daubing her eyes beneath a hand dryer. Her friend, played by half-forgotten '80s star Rae Dawn Chong, offers an unexpected reply: “How did you imagine it?” 

It's that second line that I found seismically affecting. Are Mark and Jay Duplass suggesting, after all this grungy stasis, that some kind of change is possible? They are, and the movie walks boldly through that door. It engages in the sort of freed wish-fulfillment Charlie Kaufman half-parodied in the last reel of Adaptation. This, too, is a case of cerebral filmmakers, usually too wised-up to trust the escapist power of movies, briefly dropping their defenses. The movie's final 20 minutes, which redeem all the failed comedy that came before, aren't really comedy at all, but a kind of poetic ecstasy. The movie refuses to be defined by expectations. Like Jeff, it jumps onto what passes through and gets carried away. R.

Critic’s Score: 77

SEE IT: Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens Friday at Fox Tower and Clackamas.