Adapted from Jonathan Tropper’s bestselling novel, Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You is a star-studded, slickly produced observation of family dysfunction, regret, grief, shame, depression, loneliness, infidelity, and infertility (drug addiction and domestic violence somehow missed the cut). It’s an occasionally charming, chuckle-inducing comedy about Life’s Big Problems, the same formula that’s worked for seemingly hundreds of similar ensemble comedies and dramas. But the best of those films fully commit to either laughs or cries, or in the hands of the right director, a balance between them that achieves something altogether weird and wonderful.
Director: Shawn Levy
Producers: Jeff Levine, Shawn Levy, Paula Weinstein
Writer: Jonathan Tropper
Cinematographer: Terry Stacey
Editor: Dean Zimmerman
Music: Michael Giacchino
Cast: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer
Premiere: September 7, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 19, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Far from wonderful, This Is Where I Leave You looks and feels like Levy’s Cheaper By the Dozen, one of his early hits before the Night at the Museum trilogy, Real Steel, Date Night, and The Internship. These are not serious movies, and This Is Where I Leave You stumbles mightily in its dramatic attempts. It’s an emotional pinball machine with its own Big Problems, foremost among them its inability to manage an even tone between solemn reflection, sex jokes, and silly sibling hijinks. The book (which I have not read) likely allowed room for the characters and scenes to organically develop with emotional nuance, but the movie is a shallow, forgettable affair: a mediocre episode of a sitcom.
Meet the Altman family, gathered together from far and wide to sit Shiva (the Jewish mourning ritual) after the passing of Mort, the family patriarch. Hillary (Jane Fonda, a bright spot here) is the recently widowed psychologist who wrote a tell-all book about the quirky family decades ago, and still lives off the royalties when she’s not spending it on breast implants. Eldest son Paul (Corey Stoll, underutilized in this role) is the responsible sibling who stayed in the small town to manage Mort’s store, but is struggling to conceive a child with his anxious wife.
Only daughter Wendy (Tina Fey, who has now surpassed Michael Cera in the Laziest Typecasting race to the bottom) is stuck in a bad marriage and finds herself pining for her high school sweetheart Horry (Timothy Olyphant), whom we identify as a traumatic brain injury patient from the “I Can’t Take Care of Myself” haircut from the Acme Hollywood Makeup Kit. Youngest son Phillip (Adam Driver, by far the most energetic screen presence) is the boorish family clown, unfiltered and unpredictable at all times.
Despite having this talented cast at his disposal, Levy loads This Is Where I Leave You almost entirely on the back of Jason Bateman as remaining sibling Judd (whose character is an enigma: an honest, genuinely sweet guy who produces a shock jock’s misogynistic radio show). Although Bateman does his best not to channel Michael Bluth, the humor and style of the story is so similar to Arrested Development that this may well be what the rumored film adaptation will look like. Bateman is reliably funny throughout, but too much of the story is focused on him during the week the siblings spend rediscovering each other and their pasts in a series of eye-rolling exchanges.
By Mort’s funeral in the first 15 minutes, we see every obvious joke and melodramatic conversation—which occur primarily on rooftops and in ice rinks—coming a mile away. Levy’s attempt at a shocking plot twist is the revelation of a same-sex relationship, which has no resulting significance and comes at a point when the film has devolved into absurdity (i.e., family brawls on the front lawn).
The dialogue in This Is Where I Leave You is, in a word, asinine. Tropper adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and something must have been lost in adaptation. That, or you can write a bestseller these days on a foundation of sighing utterances such as, “Love causes cancer, just like everything else. But it's still love, and it has its moments.” Or, as Rose Byrne’s character deeply observes: “Anything can happen. Anything happens all the time.”
Peppered with probing lines like that, This Is Where I Leave You sounds like a parody, a sappy young adult novel being sarcastically read aloud by adults. As the trailer reminds us however, this is no joke, but rather “fear, faith, family, choice, chance, change, life, loss, and love.“ Anything else? In an attempt to leave no stone unturned, This Is Where I Leave You leaves every stone unturned, failing to connect on anything more than the most superficial level. You’ll laugh, you won’t cry, and you’ll discover that where it leaves you is disappointed.