Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 12, 2012
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Jeff, Jason Segel, Cheetahs, and Quiet
It's so nice when a film shrugs off its category boundaries and creates something surprisingly
Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is a "small" film, in an era when such films are often arty, and view
their middle-class characters with a sneer. But Jeff doesn't condescend to its characters, even
when they are foolish or mean-spirited.
It never seems to be saying, Look what these bourgeouis fools are like. Instead it's saying, Look
at this guy -- he's making some serious mistakes, but he thinks he's completely justified. Will
he learn anything or is he stuck forever?
In other words, this movie isn't making an obvious social statement; instead, it's telling a
fascinating story about believable people whose lives are more than a little messy.
Jeff (Jason Segel) and Pat (Ed Helms) are brothers, whose father died -- and in various ways
their lives since then have consisted of trying to get over that gaping hole in their lives.
Their mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), is hardly better off. She's fed up with her sons. Pat is
married, but his values are seriously screwed up and he's wrecking his own marriage. And Jeff,
who is nicer, is wasting his life smoking weed in her basement while having "philosophical
thoughts" that seem to be unusually lame.
Two women round out the cast. One is Pat's wife, Linda (Judy Greer), who is trapped in a
marriage in which she's treated as an obstruction instead of a partner.
The other is Sharon's work-friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong), who is trying to be a good friend in
the midst of Sharon's frustration.
Jeff is a comedy, but that term is misleading in an era when "comedy" usually means "raunchy,
grossout farce about people you wouldn't spend two minutes with if you met them in real life."
Though, truth to tell, I probably wouldn't spend much time with any of these characters, either,
at least in the state they're in at the beginning of the film. But they grow on you, especially
because they really are just trying to muddle through their quest for happiness and meaning.
Pat is trapped in the pursuit of status symbols and macho displays that mean nothing and harm
him and those he loves. Jeff, on the other hand, is trying to uncover the hand of fate, to see what
the universe is saying to him.
In fact, I bet that there's a version of this script that carries the title Kevin, because for Jeff, the
film consists of trying to figure out what the universe meant by sending him a wrong-number
phone call asking rudely for someone named Kevin.
In pursuit of the meaning of "Kevin," Jeff gets off a bus in a high-crime neighborhood, plays
some pick-up basketball, and then gets mugged. Later, he rides on a "Kevin Kandy" delivery
Both these ventures do in fact lead him somewhere: To his brother, Pat. But these encounters,
though transformative in Pat's life, don't seem to mean anything to Jeff. He continues searching.
When he finds the real meaning of "Kevin," the film takes a breathtakingly serious turn, and
suddenly you realize that in the guise of a comedy you've actually been watching a concise (and
much realer) film version of A Prayer for Owen Meany.
The comedy is amusing, though, peppered as it is with F-words, many of my friends would
probably not appreciate it much.
By the end, though, you realize that you've just been taken through a powerful exploration of
what it means to be a family.
In a way, this movie is about the missing (and much-loved) father and husband, and in the end,
they all seem to have found ways to give meaning to his absence and turn it into something good
in their lives.
It's a hopeful film, and, in its tatty small-film way, a beautiful one.
If you think the Hangover movies are really funny, or the American Pie series has heart, then it's
quite possible you'll hate every minute of Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
But then, those films are aimed at people who are doomed to remain 14 for the rest of their lives.
Jeff is aimed at an audience of grownups who've seen enough real life to know that it's messy
but it can, in fact, be beautiful, and people can learn and improve, and it's worth trying.
Meanwhile, let me point out what a remarkable career Jason Segel is having. No, he's not a
huge star -- you may not even recognize his name. Besides the title role in Jeff, Who Lives at
Home, he's probably best known for playing Marshall in How I Met Your Mother (my favorite
comedy series on television right now) and the lead in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
You don't get parts like these if you have no talent -- obviously, there are people who recognize
exactly what Segel is: One of our finest working actors.
With a body that runs to fleshiness and a soft, good-natured face, he could easily be mistaken for
a nebbish -- and that is the kind of role he gets cast in.
But nebbishes make for good comedy, when somebody plays the part well. Remember when
Woody Allen was funny? Well, Segel has what Woody Allen used to have -- a brilliant comic
talent that never, never looked as if the actor or the character was trying for a laugh.
Compare that with Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell, who always look desperate for a laugh, and you'll
see what I mean.
And Jason Segel can do something that Woody Allen was never able to bring off: He can be real.
In short, he's an actor who is often cast in funny roles, rather than a comedian who can
The other night I found myself watching the last third of Can't Hardly Wait, a 1998 teen
comedy that really wanted to be American Graffiti or Fast Times at Ridgemont High and wasn't.
But there were good performances in the film -- it may be the best thing I've ever seen Seth
Green do, and Ethan Embry may have tried too hard, but he was still good.
In that film, suddenly there pops up Jason Segel in his first film role, playing "watermelon guy,"
who says about six lines and otherwise just sits there practicing lovemaking on a watermelon
wedge. But it's quite possible not to realize that's what he's doing, because Segel doesn't point
up his comedy in case you're too stupid to get it.
What Segel does is steal his scenes. He's such an island of reality in this sea of overacting that
he's completely riveting. His part is nothing; it's not part of the plot; it goes nowhere. But every
time he's on screen, it's refreshing and you keep wishing you could have been watching his
As a lifelong insomniac, I have spent many hours of my life slipping channels, trying to turn
three bad shows into one entertaining one.
Last night I was despondently surfing my way into the range of little-watched channels and came
across a couple of programs on the National Geographic channel.
Let's just say that NGTV isn't on my regular rotation of channels.
I got hooked on a documentary about a young leopard as she grew up and became a rival of her
mother. I was surprised to learn that hyenas and baboons pose a constant and serious danger
even to adult leopards -- if they catch a solitary leopard, they gang up and tear it to pieces.
But what really captured me was the terrible violence of Lion vs. Cheetah, a documentary hour
about a rare violent encounter between a couple of lions and a quartet of cheetahs in Botswana.
Lions and cheetahs were thought to leave each other alone, mostly because they're not really
rivals for the same game. Lions tend to hunt in prides that bring down larger prey -- water
buffaloes, wildebeests. They stalk and pounce.
But cheetahs -- alone or with pals -- have staked their evolutionary future on speed. Their prey
are the lighter, smaller, faster grazing animals like gazelles and impalas that can usually outrun
In fact, because cheetahs aren't all that strong (compared to lions; don't imagine that you can
win a slapfight with a cheetah), they often get only about ten percent of the meat from their
successful hunts. A lion or packs of baboons or hyenas will come along and drive the cheetah
from its kill.
So it's a good thing that cheetahs catch their prey about half the time. They expend a lot of
energy for only a small portion of the meat they earned.
But as the lion and cheetah experts reviewed the footage of this rare and seemingly needless
confrontation between cheetahs and lions (no suspense -- the cheetahs lose, mostly because
they're so distracted by love that they become incautious), they speculated that there is a hidden
rivalry between cheetahs and lions: cub-killing.
This is a sport of all the big cats, along with their pack-hunting rivals. Without making much
effort to eat their kills, they slaughter each other's babies whenever they get a chance.
There's brutal footage of male lions killing the cubs of a pride they just took over -- getting rid
of another male's babies brings the females of the pride into estrus sooner, and makes a niche
which the new male's babies can, with luck, grow up to fill.
The most powerful image I got from this documentary was the cold-eyed ruthlessness with
which the lions approached and killed the cheetahs. There was intelligence in their eyes, but no
visible sign of emotion.
I know, it's foolish to try to read human emotions into alien faces. But that really wasn't what I
was doing. What disturbed me was recognizing that I have seen that passionless calculation in
the eyes of human beings. Very disturbing.
Do you know any aloof, stuck-up people who think they're better than you? People who ignore
your friendly overtures and hold themselves aloof and say almost nothing in conversations?
People that you think hate you and you can't figure out why?
Chances are that they're really introverts and they don't have any of the feelings that you have
ascribed to them.
The book Quiet has been inhabiting the bestseller lists of late, and it deserves to be even more
Not all introverts are shy or quiet, of course, and part of the reason is that we live in a society
that seems to place great value on being "outgoing," "a go-getter," "enthusiastic," or "friendly."
These value-laden words are usually nothing more than descriptions of extroverted personalities
-- people who, by their inborn nature, are drawn to constantly seek to make friendly contact
with everyone. It energizes them to be in a crowd; they hardly feel alive when they're alone.
The trouble is, an awful lot of us aren't like that at all; even if we have learned to act outgoing
and friendly, it exhausts us to be with any more than a couple of deeply trusted friends.
Introverts treasure their solitude, and shy introverts feel no need to extract friendliness from
strangers, and so don't show any.
The book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain,
is valuable, and not just for introverts who will welcome the reassurance that it's actually OK to
be softspoken or standoffish.
People often misjudge introverts completely, and because of that miss out on the possibility of
deep friendship or powerful conversation that only comes when you've built up trust with an
introvert over time.
It isn't just extroverts who misjudge introverts as "aloof" or "stuck-up." Other introverts are just
as likely to put negative interpretations on the quietness of shy people.
I've done it myself -- and still do, because it's a natural conclusion to leap to. When someone
doesn't respond to your overtures of friendship, it's easy to conclude that they are deliberately
But in many cases, it's simply an introvert who thinks he's responding reasonably and has no
idea that what you're seeing is a cold rebuff.
A lot of people think that such misunderstandings are the introverts' fault. But it's truly a no-fault problem. Why should we all assume that the default condition of good people is "warm"
The fact is that on the occasions when I've been cheated or betrayed, it's been because I put way
too much faith in the "friendship" of extroverts; after sixty years of life, I've finally learned that
extroverts can no more help seeming friendly, when no friendship is implied, than introverts can
help seeming standoffish, when no rejection is implied.
Whether you're an introvert or are merely married to one -- or trying to raise one, or being
raised by one! -- I highly recommend Quiet as a door that you can open into the hearts and
minds of people who are often mysterious to you.
While you're at it, it's worth looking at Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament
Types, by Marilyn Bates and David Keirsey. More than two decades ago, a dear friend
introduced my wife and me to this book, which is the best guide I've seen to the Meyers-Briggs
Type Indicator (MBTI).
While Quiet deals with only one aspect of personality -- where a person falls on the
introvert/extrovert scale -- Please Understand Me also deals with other points of conflict
between personality types.
Too often, we think that there's a certain type of personality that's "good," and we condemn
others -- or ourselves -- because of noncompliance with that "virtuous" type.
What my wife and I learned from Please Understand Me was (and is) that there's more than one
way to be a good person, and one person's needs are not made less legitimate because they're
not identical to another's.
My wife, for instance, needs a sense of order, a well-laid-out calendar, a place for everything and
everything in its place.
I admire people who live that way, and often try to measure up, but after sixty years of life I've
had to face the fact that, despite my conscious efforts to accommodate myself to an organized
world, I will almost always find some way to subvert any regular schedule or calendar.
My wife and I have learned to accommodate each other's needs when our personalities conflict.
For instance, we agree on which events we'll attempt to do -- but then I don't think about it
again until a day or two before, when she reminds me.
If I had to keep the schedule myself, it would fill me with constant anxiety and interfere with my
ability to focus on present work. But she needs to count on events taking place as scheduled. So
our compromise lets her maintain the schedule, while letting me forget it completely.
It means that she's the Designated Grownup in our marriage (every family needs at least one).
Sometimes I'm surprised at an event long-agreed-to that seems to come out of nowhere;
sometimes she's annoyed at the fact that I really do forget about anything that I haven't been
reminded of within the last hour.
But we accommodate each other. We each bend where we can to fit in with the other's needs. I
hate itineraries, but we all benefit from her careful attention to getting reservations for
So she keeps most of our schedule open-ended to make room for my need for impulsive
decision-making, and I accept the skeleton of a schedule that allows us to have a room waiting
for us when we reach the hotel.
Meanwhile, my "disorganized" life, in which I forget everything except the one thing I'm
focused on at the moment, is the way I get books written, which pays the bills. It's a healthy
compromise in which we both show respect for each other.
Which really is what both Quiet and Please Understand Me are about: respect. By realizing that
other people can be different from you, not by their choice but by their nature, and yet still be
good, virtuous people, you can work out compromises that make it possible to live with and like