October 23, 2014 Leave a comment
When Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) catches his boss (Dax Shepard) in bed with his wife (Abigail Spencer), quits his job at the radio station at which he works and receives a phone call from his sister (Tina Fey) informing him that his father has passed away, he naturally assumes that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. He would be wrong. Upon arriving at his family home ahead of the funeral, Judd discovers that despite being an atheist his father has wished that they observe the Jewish custom of shiva. Grounded by mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) for seven days of mourning, Judd and siblings Wendy, Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver) spend the week coming to terms with their loss, their lives and each other as childhood friend-turned-rabbi Charles (Ben Schwartz) oversees the ritual.
The latest film from Shawn Levy, This Is Where I Leave You has been adapted from Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name by the author himself, and is the latest in a long line of familial dramas to cast comedy actors. Unfortunately, the film is more Brothers & Sisters than August: Osage County, with the film doing little to distinguish itself from the most unremarkable melodramas. Whereas last year’s Oscar nominee portrayed a family intent on tearing itself apart, Levy’s is a much more traditional tale of reconnection and coming together in the face of tragedy. There is much talk of fragility and unhappiness, but ultimately nothing that can’t be more or less fixed in the space of one hundred minutes.
Aiming presumably for tragicomic, the film falls woefully short as the characters prove too false to be funny. Bateman has never been the best dramatic actor, and while his character should be the audience’s focal point he is too smug to be suitably sympathetic. As with Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine Bateman appears to have signaled his serious intentions by growing a beard, but it isn’t nearly enough to sell his performance. Fey is clearly struggling too, and seems unsure how to deliver lines in an unconsciously earnest manner. She’s saddled with a romantic subplot that sees Wendy pine for her brain-damaged childhood sweetheart (as played by Timothy Olyphant) that just doesn’t work at all. Everyone else is simply conforming to type, but even safely within familiar territory Fonda, Driver and Stoll fail to make their characters interesting.
While many of the films developments ultimately fall flat, there is the occasional flourish. The family’s relentless teasing of Schwartz’s character (nicknamed Boner) never fails to raise an admittedly modest smile, while Rose Byrne is perfectly watchable as Penny Moore, who had a crush on Judd when they were at school. There is even the occasional show of wit in the Altman residence, usually when the family are lined up for shiva or Wendy’s son “goes potty” in the middle of an argument. Hillary is a celebrity psychologist, and her fictional book’s insights into her four children are often more entertaining than the film’s. For the most part, however, This Is Where I Leave You limits itself to poking fun at Fonda’s fake breasts.
Largely devoid of laughs and lacking in any real bite, This Is Where I Leave You fails as both a comedy and a drama. Worse still, the characters, performances and story absolutely fail to convince. The Altman’s may have spent a week mourning the passing of their father, but you will have likely forgotten all about it minutes after the end of the film.