This is Where I Leave You (2014) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual content and some drug use
Running Time: 103 min.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Adam Driver, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Corey Stoll, Rose Byrne, Abigail Spencer, Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton, Ben Schwartz, Dax Shepard
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenplay: Jonathan Tropper (based on his novel)
Review published September 21, 2014
Jason Bateman (Bad Words, Identity Thief) plays Judd Altman, whose life comes crumbling down through no fault of his own when he walks in on his wife (Spencer, Oz the Great and Powerful) engaged in coital action with his boss (Shepard, Baby Mama); they've been sleeping together behind Judd's back for about a year. If losing his wife and his job weren't enough, the next day, his sister (Fey, Muppets Most Wanted) calls to inform him that his father has passed away. Now with his dysfunctional family (none of whom look related), his mother (Fonda, The Butler) and three siblings, he's informed that his father's dying wish is for the family to sit Shiva, a week-long Jewish ritual in which the immediate family mourns together while receiving visitors. What should be a time for healing ends up being yet another trial for them all, as this family who has never gotten along with each other have to finally deal with their differences head on if they're going to last for the entire week.
The screenplay by Jonathan Tropper, who adapts his own best-selling novel from 2009, is full of many typical dysfunctional family reunion story threads, from family secrets revealed, to friction that eventually smooths over through understanding and acceptance of each other's flaws. Director Shawn Levy (The Internship, Night at the Museum) gives the film the right look and pace throughout, and yet, he has yet to master subtle moment, with every scene needing an obvious punch line or pithy aphorism to punctuate it. I guess all of those years making broad comedies has ruined his ability to go for the kind of understated wit that this film could certainly use much more of.
If the film fails, it's through no fault of the actors, who give their individual parts the gusto required for the setup to laughs and tears that should follow. Even if the actors are fine, it's the beyond-obnoxious characterizations that sink the film, with plenty of contrived slapstick gags and manufactured drama to remind us that what we're watching is not much more than an extended TV dramedy with slightly bigger star power in the cast. A side story involving Timothy Olyphant (I Am Number Four) as a former flame to Fey who suffers from a brain injury is almost unbearably bad, but not nearly as awful as a final-act revelation by Jane Fonda that plays about as awkward as it would sound if I could reveal it without a spoiler. Basically, it's a film made by people trying to make a movie that all families can relate to, except for the fact that it contains characters that resemble none of us very well.
On occasion, Levy and Tropper do manage to stumble into an erudite moment that surprises. If only these poignant moments weren't persistently undercut by the need to inject crass or hackneyed moments to try for unabashed audience-pleasing guffaws. Levy appears anxious to keep belly laughs in the audience, never letting a truthful or soft-hearted moment linger without a reference to a toddler going through his own toilet training, the matriarch's heavily augmented breasts, expletive-laden arguments that erupt into silly slap-fights, or an embarrassing family secret suddenly burst into the open whenever the room is full of people who stand by with mouths agape at the tawdry details. This is a movie that doesn't just embrace formula, it's content to wallow in it like a luxurious mud bath.
Viewers not expecting anything more than a time-killer family dramedy with a nice cast will probably be the only ones to not feel they should have just left the theater when the title This is Where I Leave You first appears on the screen.
©2014 Vince Leo