Movie Review: This Is Where I Leave You
By Matthew Huntley
September 29, 2014
This is Where I Leave You is another one of those dysfunctional family comedy-dramas that never quite works as a comedy or as a drama. Like the people in it, the movie is at odds with itself and doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It plays a constant tug-of-war between “silly & outrageous” and “genuine & insightful.” Such a quality of uncertainty is fine when it comes to characters (in fact, this tends to make them more human and interesting), but when it describes the movie itself, it often spells trouble. To be sure, there are moments in This is Where I Leave You that are funny and dramatic, but these get lost in the shuffle of too many others that simply try and fail.
Like many movies of this sort, the event that unites the family is a death, and in this case, it’s the father, who’s passed away after a long illness. Although Mr. Altman was Jewish on paper, his beliefs were atheist, which is why it’s so strange that his dying wish is for his wife and four adult children to sit Shiva. This Jewish ritual, I’ve come to learn, is a weeklong mourning period when the deceased’s immediate family members gather in one room, sit on short chairs (to be closer to the earth), and receive visitors.
Of course, such a custom proves difficult for the Altmans, not least because the siblings “don’t like each other.” But then, it would probably be hard for any family - loving or not loving, Jewish or not Jewish - to sit in a confined space for a week without cooking up fresh conflicts, opening up old wounds and speaking harsh words.
It’s especially trying for the Altmans, though, since the patriarch’s death, like any death I suppose, has come at a most inopportune time. Each of the characters in Jonathan Tropper’s screenplay, based on his novel, is already facing his or her own crisis; this just adds fuel to the fire.
The middle son, Judd (Jason Bateman), recently walked in on his wife (Abigail Spencer) and boss (Dax Shepard) having sex and suddenly finds himself at the beginning of a divorce. Wendy (Tina Fey), the only daughter, is a mother of two and stuck in a loveless marriage of her own with Barry (Aaron Lazar), although she still has feelings for Horry (Timothy Olyphant), a former boyfriend who permanently lives at home after suffering brain damage from a car accident. Paul (Corey Stoll) is the eldest brother and feels frustrated and inadequate because he can’t get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. Then there’s Phillip (Adam Driver), the youngest of the bunch, who never seems to get his life in order or take responsibility for his actions. He’s a kid at heart and compensates for his insecurities by driving a Porsche and dating his much older (and richer) therapist (Connie Britton), although he’s hardly loyal to her.
In spite of everything going on in their lives, their mother (Jane Fonda) insists they stay and fulfill their father’s wish and staunchly says, “For the next seven days, you’re all my kids again, and you’re grounded.” And so the movie gathers everybody up and lets the familial criticizing, insulting and verbal and physical abuse begin. During this window, there are also some heart-to-hearts; forgiveness and acceptance; a potential new romance courtesy of Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), the local girl who never left; and various other affairs and revelations.
All of this is fairly standard stuff and indeed one of the movie’s underlying problems is that it never bothers to venture beyond where other movies and TV shows with similar plots have already gone. In fact, the similarities between This is Where I Leave You and, say, The Family Stone, Death at a Funeral or Arrested Development seem almost deliberate. Jason Bateman, as capable and likable an actor as he is, more or less plays the same part here that he did in the latter series. He’s sort of become the go-to actor for the “straight man in a family of crazies” role.
So the movie is devoid of any real surprises, but that’s not to say it couldn’t have still been worth our while. Some scenes work, like when the three Altman brothers gather in temple and make sure their Dad’s leftover “medicine” doesn’t go to waste, or when Judd attempts to maneuver the foldout sofa in the basement. The reason these scenes work is because they ring of truth and remind us of our own quirky families and homes.
But unfortunately these scenes are surrounded by others that are too unbelievable for their own good - ones that try to turn the movie into a raunchy or slapstick comedy. I could have done without the constant (and mostly lame) jokes about Mrs. Altman’s breast implants; or a sex scene that’s broadcast over a baby monitor; or a fight in a hospital waiting room; or a discussion about one of the boys playing with his genitals as a kid. It’s these types of moments that made the movie seem desperate and diffident, and even though I think it’s possible for a comedy to be both silly and genuine, director Shawn Levy’s approach isn’t successful. In its attempt to be two different types of movies, This is Where I Leave You ends up as a lesser version of each, and that leaves us with little to take away from it.