THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU Movie Review – Middling, Mediocre, Pedestrian
As a rule, ensemble family comedy-dramas can be difficult to pull off, not least because the filmmakers involved have to juggle multiple characters, plotlines, performers (and performing styles), while providing a modicum of insight into the family at the center of comedy-drama (and the family as a socio-cultural construct) and satisfying, earned emotional payoffs for moderately demanding moviegoers. This Is Where I Leave You, an adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s (One Last Thing Before I Go) bestselling 2009 novel (he also wrote the screenplay) by Shawn Levy (The Internship, Real Steel, Date Night, Night at the Museum), the very definition of a risk-adverse, mainstream director, falls short of those not particularly exacting requirements, but that’s far from the fault of a strong, if mismatched, cast. The fault lies — as it too often does — with a banal, cliché-ridden screenplay and Levy’s pedestrian direction.
When we first meet Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), the focal character for This Is Where I Leave You, he’s just moments away from discovering his wife, Quinn Altman (Abigail Spencer), “in flagrante delicto” with his shock-jock boss, Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard). Shocked, saddened, and devastated, Judd retreats to a studio apartment to nurse his emotional wounds. Before he can recover, however, he’s headed back to his childhood home for the funeral of his father. While Judd tries to hide the dissolution of his marriage from his grieving mother, Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda), his siblings, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll), Phillip (Adam Driver), prove to be far less accommodating. Almost immediately, Judd and his siblings fall into old, semi-destructive patterns of interacting and behaving (one of This Is Where I Leave You’s few points of connection to the real world), baiting and insulting each other, and following their mother’s faux-shock-inducing lead, over-sharing, a character trait or flaw that define the half-Jewish, half-WASP Altman clan during the week of mourning (“shiva”) imposed by their mother at their late father’s request.
They have major life issues of their own too, of course. Wendy seems stuck in a loveless marriage to an investment broker, Barry Weissman (Aaron Lazar). It’s all the more reason for her to pine for her high-school/college boyfriend/one-time neighbor, Horry Callen (Timothy Olyphant), injured in an accident that left him with memory problems and a seemingly endearing naiveté (endearing for Wendy and by extension, moviegoers). The brother who never left, Paul harbors grudges resentments and grudges toward his siblings and his inability to conceive a child with his wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn). The longtime/lifetime family screw-up, Phillip, shows up late to the funeral in an expensive sports car gifted to him by his girlfriend and former therapist, Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton). Their age difference is less of a near-term problem than Philip’s boorish immaturity and inability to show tack or restraint. Philip’s juvenile behavior is meant to be, if not lovable, then the source of laughs. It’s not.
Not content to let Judd work out his marital woes on his own, Tropper and Levy introduce a new love interest, Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), into Judd’s already complicated life. Penny simultaneously fits into the “girl who never left” and the “manic pixie dream girl” tropes typical of “coming home” comedy-dramas. Penny not-so-subtlety represents risk and adventure for the risk-adverse and non-adventurous Judd. She’s present in This Is Where I Leave You not as a multi-dimensional character with an inner life of her own, but as the vehicle for Judd’s romantic fulfillment/new lease on life. It’s to Byrne’s considerable credit as an actrress that she imbues her underwritten character with an energy and exuberance that almost makes moviegoers forget Penny’s purely functional nature in the narrative. Other actors, including the woefully underused Kathryn Hahn (like Byrne, a fine comedic performer), get even less to do or say except make occasional appearances to drop an unfunny line or add a predictable plot complication into the proceedings.
If nothing else, however, it’s the cast that makes This Is Where I Leave You borderline bearable. Bateman doesn’t stray far from his put-upon, straight man persona, but proves to be more than adequate during the heavier dramatic scenes. He has an easy chemistry with Tina Fey, used here perhaps too sparingly. Despite actors who look nothing like each other or the actress, Jane Fonda, who plays their mother, or varying performance styles (key to playing disparate characters), it’s easy to suspend disbelief and accept them as dysfunctional siblings in a dysfunctional family. It’s all the more disappointing then that they’re not surrounded by better material or direction.