This Is Where I Leave You (2014)
Dir: Shawn Levy
“You can laugh or you can cry, there’s no correct response.” So says Jane Fonda’s Hillary Altman upon the passing of her husband in Shawn Levy’s overstuffed melodrama This Is Where I Leave You. Despite a capable and sprawling cast full of ringers from the TV world, this limp adaptation that details the real and shocking issues (mostly boilerplate infidelity and mild regret) that white upper-middle class folks are forced to deal with will likely inspire more shrugs than genuine emotion. Laughs and tears are in woefully short supply here.
We’re first introduced to Judd Altman (Arrested Development‘s Jason Bateman) as he works at his fast-paced job as a radio show producer in bustling New York City. His day is going so well and he gets along so swimmingly with his coworkers that we know the other shoe is bound to drop. Judd comes home from work early to surprise his wife (Mad Men‘s Abigail Spencer), which he certainly does as he catches her in flagrante and mid-coitus with Judd’s obnoxious boss, the radio show host Wade Beaufort (Parenthood‘s Dax Shepard). Judd’s understandably crushed and quickly retreats to those standard pop culture signifiers of a deep funk – lying prone on a couch with the shades drawn, growing a pity beard while surrounded by empty takeout containers. His week goes from bad to worse when his sister Wendy (30 Rock‘s Tina Fey) calls with the news that their father has passed away after a battle with an unspecified illness.
And so the Altman clan is reunited at their childhood home in upstate New York to mourn their fallen patriarch. Rounding out the family are: eldest brother Paul (House of Card‘s Corey Stoll), Paul’s wife Annie (Transparent‘s Kathryn Hahn), young black sheep Phillip (Girls‘ Adam Driver), the aforementioned matriarch Hillary (The Newsroom‘s Jane Fonda), and some other folks who barely register. But wait, there’s more! Taking up additional screen time are (deep breath): the young and wannabe hip Rabbi “Boner” (Parks and Recreation‘s Ben Schwartz), the alluring local girl Penny (Damage‘s Rose Byrne), the damaged and sincere Horry (Justified‘s Timothy Olyphant), kindly neighbour Linda (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Debra Monk), and Phillip’s wise girlfriend Tracy (Friday Night Lights‘ Connie Britton). Whew. Post-funeral, Fonda’s Hillary declares to her adult children that their father’s dying wish – despite being an atheist – was to have them sit Shiva, beginning a week of revelations, reignited romances, and maybe, just maybe, some new life directions for these wacky kids.
Screenwriter Jonathan Tropper adapts from his novel of the same name, and has the unenviable task of wrangling the myriad characters and relationships into a cohesive whole. The script seems to be aiming for naturalistic and overlapping dialogue, a la the improvised likes of Altman or Cassavetes, but ends up wringing false for the most part despite committed performances. It’s hard to truly believe in these characters and the troubles they face when there’s no meaningful empathy generated. Bateman fares the best, aging into the world-weary role well and wringing some pathos out of sometimes just his watery eyes. Unfortunately, the latter half of the film is full of these huge emotional beats that are meant to hit with the force of a sledgehammer but generally fall short. The recent August: Osage County is a fine, if slightly histrionic, example of similar material executed with more impact and finesse.
Ultimately it’s the tone that’s most off in This Is Where I Leave You. The comedy is not particularly funny (the obligatory scene of long time abstainers getting high is cringe inducing), while the drama doesn’t coalesce into anything that can elicit a strong response (these characters are facing some really mundane issues, and at least have the benefit of a large and loving family to fall back upon). The large cast is deserving of better material, and for the most have been given it in their small screen roles. Pedestrian and unmoving, This Is Where I Leave You is best left unwatched. For real family drama you’re better off with Death at a Funeral, August: Osage County, or letting your mom comb through your text message history.