Day 315: This is Where I Leave You

"It's hard to see people from your past when your present is so cataclysmically screwed up."
Dysfunction is in. It's hip to be dysfunctional again, and it seems as if every film that deals with family these days more or less traffics in dysfunction. It's not interesting to deal with perfection as far as character dynamics go within a family, but lately it's been a pissing match to see who can present the most messed up family of them all, as if John Waters' Pink Flamingos has come to startling life. And so it is with the new film This is Where I Leave You, which features a cast of ace comedic talent and a script from Jonathan Tropper based on his book. The biggest question mark of all was director Shawn Levy, whose stock in trade is middle of the road fare like Night at the Museum and Date Night. Could he rise to the heights presented to him by another stellar ensemble, or would he fail them as he's failed so many great casts in the past? Read on to find out...
Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is having a terrible run of bad luck. When the film opens, he discovers that his wife (Abigail Spencer) has been sleeping with his misogynistic radio show boss (Dax Shepard) for over a year, and to top it all off his father dies. When the Altman clan assembles for his funeral, their mother (Jane Fonda) tells them that their atheist father's dying wish was for his family to sit shiva for him, a Jewish tradition where a family mourns together for a full week. Judd's sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is the only one who knows about Judd's marital strife, but is dealing with her own distant husband (Aaron Lazar) and two small children, one of whom is taking potty training to new extremes. The oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is knee deep in trying to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant, and the youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) has just sprung his newest, and much older girlfriend (Connie Britton) on the family.
As the week wears on, long simmering tensions between them all are brought to the surface. Judd rekindles his relationship with an old flame (Rose Byrne) just as his wife reappears to share some shocking news with him, and the family begins to suspect that their mother is not being upfront with them about certain developments that have occurred in the last years of their father's life. But through it all, blood is thicker than water, lessons will be learned, tears will be shed, laughs will be had, etc. etc. etc.
The most immediate issue with This is Where I Leave You is that it seems perfectly content to not break any new ground. There's not a beat in the entire film that hasn't been done better elsewhere. Trying to condense a sprawling, multi-character book into a 103 minute film is always a challenge, and the film feels like it's trying to keep as much in as possible, at the expense of not really developing more than a handful of the characters. It becomes tedious at times, particularly in the bloated third act, and considering how far ahead every development is projected, it feels like a long slog toward a foregone conclusion. By unleashing a torrent of plot twists, seemingly one for every character in the film, it begins to feel like the writer and director are doing everything they can to maintain the audience's interest.
The real sin is that they didn't have to do any of that. With a cast this amazing, they could have simply let them loose and allow them to make up for the shortcomings behind the camera. Instead, one begins to feel for a cast given very little to work with, doing their best to not let the flop sweat show. The film does have some terrific moments, and watching comedic geniuses like Bateman and Fey go toe to toe with stellar actors like Fonda and Stoll is worth the price of admission alone, but one can't help but wish that they were given just a little bit more to work with.
The actors are more or less done in by their underdeveloped characters, and the lack of closure with virtually every character except Bateman's weakens the whole enterprise. Bateman is terrific, as to be expected, and his chemistry with Fey is the real highlight of the movie. Stoll does the best he can with the weakest of the main characters, and Byrne is sadly saddled with a more mature version of the ubiquitous manic pixie dream girl. Driver is perhaps the biggest revelation among the cast, showing that he works incredibly well in ensembles pieces, and always managing to land truthful moments with both humor and gravity. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, adding up to one of the best ensembles in recent memory.
The main fault of the film is the direction. Levy is just not a capable director, and his insistence on constantly hammering in visual metaphors where they're not needed undermines the brilliant work of his cast. That's his m.o. however, casting very capable actors and then leaving them to fend themselves while he stages some hackneyed, first year film student set-up underscored with alt rock. It's a real shame because a better director would have really brought this film to life, and could have probably avoided some of the more rote aspects of the screenplay.
Overall, This is Where I Leave You rings of truth while still feeling wholly dishonest. It's incredibly well acted, and the script has some moments of verbal pizzazz, but it feels like a ground rule double when it could have been a home run with just a little more effort. It will land with a variety of audience members, most of whom can relate to the dysfunction on display, but it's simultaneously weighed down by contrivance and well-worn tropes. It's basically a funnier version of August: Osage County, and if that sounds appealing to you, then by all means, enjoy. The rest of us will just sit here quietly, hoping that someday soon, dysfunction will be presented not for dysfunction's sake, but because it's grounded in a universal truth about all of us.
GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]