Despite its cast of familiar faces, This Is Where I Leave You fails to fully engage its audience on both the comedic and the emotional front. (6.5/10)
In our era of dysfunctional families, This Is Where I Leave You opens with a premise chockfull of promise – the tragedy of the death in the family offers a counterweight to the inherently comedic chaos of a large family reunion, yet even with the plethora of talent that director Shawn Levy has at his disposal, the final product is disappointingly banal. Adapted from Jonathan Tropper’s novel of the same name, the movie endeavours to charm its audience by mixing its family tension fuelled hijinks with tender moments of love and honesty but unfortunately, the movie neither has the time nor the talent to fully flesh its characters out and thus cannot create a truly compelling tale for any of them. For a movie that clearly intends to reassure its audience that everything will be alright, it seems oddly reserved in its optimism but is considerably more thorough in examination of its characters’ weaknesses and flaws.
As in often the case, the blame cannot be singly assigned but must be shared evenly by the cast, script and director. The character of Judd Altman, shaken and bitter, is perfect for the kind of humour that the movie’s leading man, Jason Bateman, excels at bringing to life but the trouble is that Altman is not a funny character as much as he is a character that finds himself in unfortunately funny situations, thanks in no small part to his meddling family. The trouble is, there is only so much of Bateman’s glum, why-does-the-world-hate-me look that any audience should have to endure before it becomes too much. Thankfully, Bateman makes up for the lack of laughs by adroitly delivering the movie’s many emotionally candid scenes in a manner not only adds substance to his characters but holds the movie together and makes the whole affair feel somewhat relatable. For all his efforts though, This Is Where I Leave You is one of those movies in which the protagonist can only do so much; given the character’s personality, the onus falls on the supporting cast to pick up the slack – and for the most part, they do. Tina Fey and Adam Driver are the movie’s comedic lynchpins with the former’s sardonic commentary on the increasingly muddled business and the latter’s over-the-top childishness serving to keep the atmosphere sufficiently light-hearted for most of the movie. Yet, while Driver can reel in his goofy immaturity to deliver a few heartfelt lines, Fey’s emotional outbursts are much harder to take seriously. Perhaps it comes from a lifetime of almost exclusively doing comedy but Fey’s attempt at crying on screen sounds more like a parody of a hurt woman than the real deal. The final Altman sibling, Paul (Corey Stoll), is perhaps the least fleshed out of the bunch and feels like a non-entity until the final third of the movie where his sudden emergence to the forefront feels a little forced. Last but not least, there is Jane Fonda who seems to have a blast playing the children’s new-age, open-minded mother. Like Bateman and Driver, Fonda knows when to get serious and while the gags that are setup beforehand do get in the way of her character’s emotional impact, Fonda nevertheless delivers a very respectable performance.
The story and the direction are problematic for similar reasons. With Tropper on board as a screenwriter, it is not unreasonable for one to expect the project to stay truer to the novel in terms of plot and character development but here the problem is twofold. On one hand, fleshing out the characters, especially the ones on the fringe would have sent the movie on a spiral that it could never have recovered from, yet on the other hand, leaving them half-done makes them feel one-dimensional. The basis for the antagonism between the siblings is never fully explored, only hinted at, and while that is fine by itself, there is a carry forward effect on the plot’s resolution when the siblings make peace with each other rather suddenly. Without further information on why the dynamics between the siblings are as they are, the audience can be forgiven for thinking that the lot of them are nothing more than overgrown children. Between Tropper and Levy, it is the latter that needs to take responsibility for this – it is within the director’s job description to present the story, with all its limitations, in a more captivating form. Levy seems to have chosen a half-measure; he teases that there is a bigger story behind it all – Judd and Quinn’s miscarriage and the subsequent marital tension would have made Judd’s ‘journey’ a little more engaging, for example – but without delving deeper into it, the end result is that the movie feels unsatisfactorily shallow.
This Is How I Leave You isn’t a terrible movie by any measure. It can elicit laughter occasionally and there are a small handful of scenes with enough wisdom and familiarity to them to be touching. In fact, despite its flaws, the movie does succeed in creating a charm; thanks mostly to the bonds between its characters, the movie generates a warmth and comfort that is reminiscent of returning home after a long absence. Yet, all the warmth in the world will not be enough to disguise the fact that this is a movie in which not much happens, and thus very little changes.
Jason Bateman – Judd Altman
Tina Fey – Wendy Altman
Jane Fonda – Hilary Altman
Adam Driver – Philip Altman
Rose Byrne – Penny Moore
Corey Stoll – Paul Altman
Abigail Spencer – Quinn Altman