Published on February 10th, 2013 | by Matt Derman0
Believing is Seeing: Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Safety Not Guaranteed
Confession: when I initially chose to write about these two movies, I was under the impression that they were both written and directed by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass. I knew for certain that Jeff, Who Lives at Home was theirs, and because Mark was also one of the stars of Safety Not Guaranteed, and the films have such strong overlapping themes, I wrongly assumed they were the work of the same creators. It wasn’t until rewatching Safety to take notes on it for this piece that I noticed it was, in fact, directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Derek Connolly. But so be it. They are still loosely related through Mark Duplass’ influence, and I love them for such similar reasons that they’re always going to be a connected pair in my mind. So, I offer you a joint examination and recommendation of two stories about letting yourself trust in things enormous and intangible.
I’d probably rate Safety Not Guaranteed as the better of the two, but only slightly, and that may be because I saw it first. Also, it stars Aubrey Plaza, whose work on Parks and Recreation made me a superfan of hers a long time ago. Plaza plays Darius, a disenfranchised intern at a Seattle magazine who lost her hope and belief in good things when her mother died years before. She gets assigned to work on a story about a man named Kenneth (Duplass) who put out a want ad seeking a partner with whom he could travel back in time. Though at first the assumption is that Kenneth is crazy, he and Darius find a lot of common ground, and eventually develop a strange, sad romance as she starts to believe in his mission to go to the past. In turn, Kenneth, by all accounts an extremely paranoid man, starts to trust in her and lets her see the depths of his pain and ambition. It is not easy for either of them to put their trust in another person, but they are continually rewarded for it, even in those moments when doubts are raised or lies uncovered.
The Jeff of Jeff, Who Lives at Home is played by Jason Segel, and his story is more about helping others than himself, though everyone benefits in the end. During the opening scene, he gets a wrong number phone call from someone looking for Kevin, and as a big believer in “everything happens for a reason,” Jeff decides this name must mean something important. So he follows a stranger with a “Kevin” basketball jersey off the bus, and this sets him stumbling half-blind through an adventure that ultimately revives his brother’s marriage and saves the lives of two young girls and their father. Looking for a greater plan, struggling to find meaning in his life, Jeff keeps accidentally ending up in exactly the right place at the right time. Is it the power of his trust in the world guiding him, or merely a case of a man so desperate he can find meaning in any coincidence? The case could be made for either, but what I adore about Jeff is that it leans heavily toward the former. Slouches against it, practically.
Both Darius and Jeff lost a parent in their past, and neither have fully recovered, if indeed they’ve healed at all. Darius’ reaction is to abandon hope, and Jeff’s is to cling to it, but they’re equally sad and alone when their respective stories begin. Though their journeys don’t take them where they expect, everyone ends up where they need to be, and the vessels that carry them there are their trust in themselves and the people around them. Their willingness to wholeheartedly commit to believing in something, whether it’s the love of a lunatic (Kenneth) or the significance of a stranger’s name (Kevin), makes that thing worth believing in. Cyclical, yes, but also beautiful, these are stories about letting cynicism fall away and choosing to throw yourself headfirst into joy.
Life will always give us myriad reasons not to have faith in anything, to see the world as pointless, needless, and cruel. People suck and then they die alone, right? But what Safety Not Guaranteed and Jeff, Who Lives at Home remind us is that, if you wear the right lenses, life offers just as many reasons to believe in its grandness, magic, and purpose. I’m not talking about religion, and neither is either of these films. They’re about trust in other human beings and ourselves. Decide to let yourself feel it and it will pay you back in kind.