Okay, Duplass brothers, which one of you is goofy and which one of you is earnest? And which one is quirky and which one is uplifting?
Speaking with the writing-and-directing filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass, it's easy to tell them apart physically – Jay, 38, is the one with the beard and glasses; Mark, 35, is the one with neither – but getting them to say anything oppositional is futile.
They're easygoing, non-battling bros who ride similar wavelengths and who helped invent the "mumblecore" genre of film-making. That, and sometimes they finish each other's thoughts: "Our movies wield uncomfortable laughter," Mark says. "That's a big part of what we do." Jay, on the couch next to his sibling, starts to explain further, "As long as they like it...," only to have Mark complete the sentence, "it's okay with us."
Their new movie is Jeff Who Lives at Home, a dramatic comedy opening on March 16 that stars Jason Segel as a whimsically motivated suburban man child who lives in his mother's (she's played by Susan Sarandon) basement.
Asked what I thought of the film, I tell the brothers that I found it to be quirky and uplifting. The adjectives are appreciated – I couldn't have made them happier if I'd brought them presents and a plateful of cheeseburgers. "That's exactly what we were after," says Jay (or maybe it was Mark). "Quirky and uplifting."
In their way, the Duplass brothers are a sort of indie version of the Coen brothers. They make modestly budgeted films for critics and discerning audiences that shoot for laughs as they explore serious (and sometimes dark) themes.
Their canon of mumblecore movies – marked by improvisation, self-reference and heavy dialogue – includes 2008's Baghead, involving four slackers in search of a screenplay. Lynn Shelton's 2008 comedy Humpday, another example of the genre, starred the some-time actor Mark.
Their biggest hit – pulling in a non-blockbustery $7.4-million – was 2010's Cyrus, starring Jonah Hill as an adult son who shares an idiosyncratic bond with his mother (Marisa Tomei) and interferes with her new relationship (with John C. Reilly).
"We can rope people in with some very funny stuff," Mark says, "and then we can get into some deeper things."
Jay adds, "The goofiness and the comedy for us doesn't diminish whatsoever the earnestness and the importance of the task."
The task at hand with Jeff Who Lives at Home was to present an offbeat narrative (involving the epically distracted pursuit of an errand involving wood glue) with a cast of characters questioning their destiny. Jeff's brother (played by The Hangover's Ed Helm) has confused priorities and a marriage that is in distress. As for Sarandon's character, her dormant love life perks up, in an unforeseeable way.
And Jeff? He sees signs only discernible to him; his small quest is an unpredictable study in fate – a universe and its tiny lives within unfolding exactly as planned.
"When the idea of the film came together, it suddenly felt enormous to us," Mark says. "It's bigger in scope and idea and concept than anything we'd really made before. And what that made us want to do is find a way to get small inside of that."
Jeff Who Lives at Home is indeed a bigger film for the brothers, whose career-launching The Puffy Chair was the do-it-yourself hit of Sundance in 2005. Jeff premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and was financed by Jason Reitman.
On the other hand, the duo is bringing the long-in-the-making The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (the story of two grown brothers who secretly hold a homemade Olympics) to this month's South by Southwest festival.
Brothers? Competing? The Duplass pair are often asked about working with each other, and whether there's friction involved. "The truth of it is, we're strength-in-numbers kind of people," Mark says. "We're obsessed with making the movie as good as it could possibly be, and we need to unite to fight the grander beast that is the bad movie the film might become if we're not on our toes."
Jay, the cameraman, agrees. "Some days on set, I'm physically exhausted, and I'm starting to lose my perspective on what the hell this movie is about. And so I rely on Mark to tell me that everything is going well, that I'm doing a good job, and that if I get to the end of the day, he'll get me a cheeseburger."
The Duplasses: Goofy and earnest, okay, but they ain't heavy to each other – they're brothers.