There are movies that I see because they look and sound amazing. There are movies that I avoid because they have no chance of being good. And then there are the critically panned movies that I see because I want to know how the hell they could have gone so badly. This is one of those last ones.
This Is Where I Leave You stars Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stall, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda, Kathryn Hahn, Rose Byrne, and a ton of other rock-solid talents. On the other hand, the film was directed by Shawn Levy, he of Real Steel, the Night at the Museum franchise, the Steve Martin Pink Panther reboot, and The Internship. The guy’s a complete mediocrity, but it’s not like this is just another time when he’s acting as a studio shill to make some soulless PG-13 cash-in. He’s making an R-rated family dramatic comedy with a stellar cast. At the very least, it should be interesting.
But it isn’t. At all.
The premise concerns Mort Altman, who dies sometime during the opening credits. For his dying wish, Mort requested that his family reunites to observe Shiva. For those who aren’t aware, Shiva is a Jewish tradition of mourning, in which the immediate family members of the deceased stay at home for seven days and nights while entertaining visitors who’ve come to pay respects. This despite the fact that Mort was only born Jewish and was an outspoken atheist right up until he died. Why the sudden change of heart? Great question. Let’s move on to the family.
Our de facto protagonist is Judd Altman, played by Jason Bateman. He’s the relatively stable middle child of the bunch (because that doesn’t sound the least bit familiar) and the news of his father’s death came at a particularly bad time for him. See, it was only a few months ago when Judd caught his wife (Quinn, played by Abigail Spencer) cheating on him with his boss. Who’s a Dax Shepard character. And this happened on her birthday. Yeah, that stings.
Judd’s older sister and closest confidante is Wendy Altman, played by Tina Fey. She’s married to Barry (Aaron Lazar), a workaholic who doesn’t seem to know that a world exists outside his cell phone, and they’re raising two kids together. Also, one of these kids is potty training, and the film has a running gag about how the kid will set his little plastic toilet down and do his business just about anywhere. The joke is precisely as awkward and unfunny as you’d think.
Oh, and Wendy also has to deal with her residual feelings for Horry (an unrecognizable Timothy Olyphant), who had a very serious love affair with Wendy at some time in the past. Horry is still living across the street from the Altmans’ house and helping to run Mort’s old sports equipment store, since a brain injury has left him pretty much incapable of relocating anywhere. Also, Horry’s mother (Linda, played by Debra Monk), has been helping the family along while Mort was on his deathbed.
Getting back to the family, the firstborn is Paul Altman (Corey Stoll), who seems so perpetually uptight that he always seems to be right on the verge of having a stroke. It doesn’t help that his wife (Alice, played by Kathryn Hahn) is hysterically desperate to have a child, and the two have been trying to conceive for years to no avail. Oh, and Alice started dating Paul right after she stopped dating Judd, so Paul has a bit of residual jealousy there as well.
(Side note: It bears remembering that Hahn and Bateman recently played love interests in Bad Words, which Bateman also directed. That history adds a neat layer to their subplot here, especially if you remember their sex scenes together in the previous film.)
To round out the siblings, we have youngest brother Phillip, played by Adam Driver. He’s your typical irresponsible fuckup who loves making trouble and can’t seem to hold down a job. Also, he’s “engaged to be engaged” with Tracy (Connie Britton) a much older woman who appears to be quite wealthy and used to be Phillip’s therapist.
Then we have the matriarch, Hillary Altman, played by Jane Fonda. She’s just gone through another round of plastic surgery (which is made into a running gag because boobs are funny, right?) because she’s about to go on another book tour. See, this year marks the 25th anniversary of “Cradle And All,” a book that Hillary wrote, based on her adventures in raising these four children. The book went on to be a highly influential bestselling smash, to the infinite public humiliation of Hillary’s kids.
Outside of the family, we’ve got two supporting characters worth mentioning. One of them is Charles Grodner (Ben Schwartz), an old childhood friend of the Altman siblings, who’s now the rabbi making sure that Jewish traditions are being upheld as per Mort’s dying wish. Also, the rabbi’s childhood nickname was “Boner” (are you seeing a trend with the running gags yet?). Last but not least is Penny (Rose Byrne) a somewhat ditzy girl who used to have a crush on Judd back when she was too young to do anything about it.
At this point, I’d like to revisit my original question: How could a movie with this much talent fuck up so badly? Looking back at the synopsis I just typed, I’m sure you can spot some clues.
To be clear, none of the blame rests on the cast. The actors all do a fine job of wrenching laughs and tears out of moments that were otherwise completely inert. Also, as much as I’d love to blame the director, Shawn Levy isn’t really at fault here either. Though his skills with camerawork and editing are hopelessly pedestrian, and it’s tempting to think that a stronger director would have done a better job at juggling the plotlines, I don’t think he’s the problem. He certainly didn’t help matters, but he’s not the problem. No, the problem is Jonathan Tropper, here adapting his own book into the screenplay. Even with zero knowledge of the book, I’m confident that this is what it looks like when an author tries to adapt his own work into a different medium and can’t bear to cut anything out.
There are simply too many plotlines for a 103-minute movie to handle, and this damages the film in countless ways. There isn’t enough time to properly develop setups and payoffs, which means that a lot of jokes and plot twists don’t land nearly as effectively as they should. Also, most of the characters are pitifully two-dimensional because there’s so little time to develop them. There are exceptions, however: Horry deals with his head injury in poignant and comical ways, Quinn appears to be sincerely heartbroken over the decision to cheat on her husband, and Dax Shepard’s character is remarkably honest about how much of a shitheel he is. Everyone else, however, seems to act like a cardboard cutout, swaying in whatever direction the plot is going. In an intimate character drama like this one, that lack of authentic characters is a fatal error.
And of course the themes all come off as half-baked. The story desperately wants to talk about family, death, marriage, fidelity, childbirth, being with loved ones, being alone, and a wide variety of other loosely-related topics. The potential messages are so far over the map that ultimately, the film never really says much of anything. Basically, it tries to be a movie about the random and senseless nature of life, but it falls into the trap of being a random and senseless movie in the process of making that statement.
On a similar note, it’s a movie filled with awkward and painful conversations between characters who hate each other, and it’s really difficult to present scenes like that in a way that isn’t just as awkward and painful for the audience. The filmmakers of course try to mine some comedy out of these arguments, but the results are hit-and-miss. When these attempts fail, they land flat on the floor with a sickening thud. But even when they succeed and get some laughs… well, I honestly hated myself for laughing. Maybe it’s just me, but it felt mean-spirited to laugh as these people tore each other to shreds. More to the point, it further damages the film’s attempts at presenting a family of likeable and authentic characters. You can’t sympathize with people who turn each other into punching bags for our amusement. It just doesn’t work that way. Though it works a lot better here than in August: Osage County, I’ll grant the film that much.
Oh, and did I mention that so much of the humor is painfully juvenile? Yeah, that doesn’t exactly help matters.
This Is Where I Leave You is a mess. It has some moments that are genuinely funny (“You’re sitting where we put our Christmas tree!”) and other moments with honest dramatic weight, but those high points are buried under way too much chaotic bullshit. The film is so unwieldy — overcrowded with too many characters, plotlines, and themes — that even the good moments are too disjointed to add up to anything. It counts for a lot that the cast is amazing and the actors are giving their all, but the writing and direction just aren’t up to par.
The movie isn’t boring or irritating, it’s just unremarkable. It tries to do so many things at once that it fails to do anything particularly well and doesn’t leave any kind of an impact. That wouldn’t be anything to get upset over, except for all the incredibly talented people who helped make this picture. These actors deserve better, and so do we.