This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
The proverb/cliché “you can never go home again” is arguably rooted in dysfunction. Hollywood will always contrive to make characters return home and face family melodrama whether they are willing or not, whether it be a reunion, a marriage, or of course, the one obligation almost impossible to escape: a funeral. So Shawn Levy’s “This Is Where I Leave You” exploits a death to bring a large and sprawling family back home, but with a somewhat new twist: utilizing the Jewish ritual of sitting Shiva —gathering to mourn for seven days while receiving visitors in the house of the deceased person— to keep a family claustrophobically under house arrest for an entire week.
Of course, the family in Levy’s film are non-practicing Jews and appear more like uptight WASPS than anything, and the father was even an Atheist, but that’s really beside the point. The observance is just a convenient conceit to trap everyone together, occurring evidently because it was the father’s last dying wish that his family gather for Shiva under his roof. And what a roof it is; the doyenne of the household being Jane Fonda, an audacious TMI-sharing psychiatrist whose bestselling book exploited her own family’s dysfunction for her gain, much to their resentment.
But “This Is Where I Leave You” begins with Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), whose life has imploded after he’s caught his douchebag radio personality boss (a perfectly cast Dax Shepard) sleeping with his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer). In the midst of Judd’s catastrophic personal meltdown, he receives a call from his frantic sister Wendy (Tina Fey) that his dad has passed away. Judd is forced to go home and spend a week with his three siblings, their spouses, exes, children, etc. Hilarity, tears and would-be-heartfelt moments ensue.
Although predictable, Levy’s sitcom-y movie is more congenial than cloying. He seems to know exactly whom this middle of the road film is intended for (take a wild guess). And the Toronto International Film Festival knows what it’s doing, programming a broad crowdpleaser with a starry cast that should connect with that just-happy-to-be-in-the-presence-of-movie-stars audience. But this certainly doesn’t mean the film is necessarily worth your time though.
“This Is Where I Leave You” is constructed to have it both ways; broad comedy sits astride allegedly poignant moments. The film intentionally vacillates between the genuinely sweet, the mawkishly sentimental, the vulgar and shrill. Fonda’s boorish, oversexed, oversharing mom —who’s bountiful boob job is a ill-mannered running joke— provides what’s meant to be “edgy” humor.
And of course the family in question is composed of nondescript characters and recognizable stereotypes. Bateman once again appears in his favorite role: the perpetually exasperated “rational” guy who has to navigate his neurotic and irrational family. There’s Paul (Corey Stoll), the older resentful brother who can’t get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. Phillip (Adam Driver), the baby of the family, is an unreliable, juvenile shithead who’s now dating his cougar-esque ex-therapist (Connie Britton). Wendy has two kids, a neglectful, asshole workaholic husband (Aaron Lazar), and still pines for an old boyfriend who suffers from a head injury that’s made him slow (Timothy Olyphant). Rose Byrne co-stars as a girl from Judd’s past that just might be the woman he needs now (how opportune!). Unsurprisingly, no one’s happy, everyone’s dealing with different levels of pain and hardship, and that’s life, right?
Based on Jonathan Tropper‘s novel of the same name, a formulaic screenplay offers no revelations; Judd’s spent an entire lifetime trying not to play it safe, as he says in one self-aware monologue, and here he is with the most conventional existence of them all (yep, you saw that moment coming a mile away). Everyone has a dilemma; everyone has lessons to learn; everything’s going to pan out in the end.
Insubstantial as it often is, “This Is Where I Leave You” is harmless, hardly straining to reach its desired effects; dumb jokes that occasionally elicit a guffaw and feel-good sentiments that may make your eyes roll. Perhaps what separates the film from other generic family comedies that try and manufacture rather than earn heartfelt moments, is that the movie rarely only is offensively stupid or manipulative like a lot of studio comedies.
It’s faint praise, sure, but ‘TIWILY’ possesses an ease and facility with its run-of-the-mill material. And talented cast members like Stoll, Driver, Hahn, Byrne and Fey may not have much to do, but their presence often make the middling ingredients slightly more tolerable.
Unremarkable but occasionally enjoyable, Levy’s dramedy is pleasant enough, but it grows tired, losing focus by the end. Gradually, as all loose ends are perfectly tied up, the movie pulls back to Judd’s point of view. But in the process some of the collective character resolutions get some pretty short thrift.
Levy’s comedic drama really only becomes overly forced in its last act, as Judd is about to drive off into the sunset for parts unknown (his latently adventurous spirit obviously triggered by the life-altering events of the movie). As each character reaches their inevitable epiphanies, Levy breaks out the autumnal, bittersweet pop songs (Coldplay, Alexi Murdoch) and slathers unnecessary wistfulness on top of already bittersweet moments.
Too bland to be memorable, too painless to hate, the slight “This Is Where I Leave You,” is like a forgettable breeze. While ultimately disposable, with almost nothing insightful to say about family, at least the movie has the decency and self-respect to not grovel or beg you to love it. [C]