This is Where I Leave You (dir. Shawn Levy)

Posted: October 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

“This is Where I Leave You” feels very, how do I put this, constructed.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that the film doesn’t feel like the real lives of real people dealing with real things.  It feels like someone watched every dramedy since the 1980s and decided to write one from the easily assembled parts.  Take a Big Life Event (family reunion, holiday, death, high school reunion, etc), have a large family who normally don’t spend time together assembled under one roof (doesn’t have to be a blood family; “The Big Chill” was a “family” of old friends) and have them work out their individual issues together while trying to balance between sitcom quirkiness and existential drama about the Big Issues underlying the Little Things in life.  I mentioned “The Big Chill”, and “Dan in Real Life” also popped into my mind while watching TIWILY, which at least has a cool title.

In this particular dramedy, we’re introduced to Judd (Jason Bateman).  His wife (Abigail Spencer) has been cheating on him for a year with his boss, a shock jock DJ (Dax Shepard).  He finds out about this by catching them in bed when he comes home early from work, which according to dramedies is the only way husbands ever catch their wives cheating (remember the old NBC show “Ed”? I loved that show, and it’s pilot started off this way.  I hear music rights issues are keeping it from getting a DVD release).  Shortly after this, his father dies, and apparently his last wish was to have his entire family come together for a shiva, which apparently is a Jewish custom in which first-degree relatives mourn someone’s death for seven days.  The family matriarch (Jane Fonda) interprets this as meaning he wanted all of his children to be under the same roof for seven days, thus providing the weirdly artificial set up for the film.

Judd has three siblings:  Wendy (Tina Fey), who is in a loveless marriage with a workaholic, drinks too much but is not an obvious alcoholic, and has a kid who insists on using the training potty outside in broad daylight.  Paul (Corey Stoll), who still lives in his hometown, is married to an ex-girlfriend of Judd’s (Kathryn Hahn).  They are trying to conceive a child and it is no going well.  Lastly, we have Phillip (Adam Driver), the ne’er do well youngest son who screws around, used to sell weed, and is in and out of legal and financial trouble.  He shows up now dating an older woman (Connie Britton) who used to be his therapist.  These storylines range from sitcomish (Paul’s), to hackneyed cartoon (Phillip), to wannabe deep but not really (Wendy’s).  Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the brain damaged neighbor (Timothy Olyphant) who Wendy used to date and still kind-of holds a torch for, or the neighbor’s mother (Debra Monk) .

Judd, while dealing with his wife’s infidelity and impending divorce, also reconnects with a woman he knew as a teen, Penny (the always delightful Rose Byrne), who is this film’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  She exists to be a bubbly, fun, and delightfully strange love interest, and that’s about it.

Here’s the main issue with this film: it wants to be an out and out comedy, but it is hampered with the pretentiousness of trying to also be some deep drama about life, or death, or love, or marriage, or mid-life crises, or whatever.  The problem is it is not deep, and the film doesn’t reach any epiphanies about any of these topics other than clichéd notions that have already been explored by pseudo-intellectual twits for centuries now.  It doesn’t help that a sappy score kicks in to bash you over the head with sentiment during the film’s dramatic scenes, when silence would have made the shallow dialogue actually seem more powerful.  Though, admittedly, I do like the use of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”.

The comedy in this film works better than the drama, and that’s probably due to the director, Shawn Levy, being primarily a comedy director.  Granted, he’s a pretty shitty comedy director if one looks at the films he’s made: “Just Married”, “Cheaper by the Dozen”, “Night at the Museum”, “The Internship”, etc, but at least he knows the basics about timing to make a good gag land.  The closest thing he’s directed to a drama prior to this was “Real Steel”, the rock ‘em-sock ‘em robots movie.  Yeah, whose bright idea was it to put this material in the hands of a guy who made Frankie Muniz and Ashton Kutcher comedies, as well as the few dark spots on Steve Martin’s usually immaculate filmography?

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Levy, but without having read the novel by Jonathan Tropper upon which this film is based, I can’t say how much of the fault of this film is with the underlying material, and how much the director really fucked up.  Tropper did, however, write the screenplay for the film as well, so unless Tropper messed up adapting his own work, or Levy took Tropper’s finished screenplay and really messed it up, chances are the original work suffered from many of the same flaws the film does.

Shallow characters and poorly executed drama aside, the film is watchable and often entertaining. Even if you are never unaware of the gears working behind the scenes, of the artificiality of the screenplay chugging along plot-point-to-plot-point, you will find yourself laughing at a number of moments, and the film is ultimately harmless in how safe it plays its themes and messages.  Individual scenes work here and there, and you tend to at the very least like the shallow characters.  I just wish the set-up was more original, the characters felt more real, the message of the film was deeper and the drama was more powerful.  Okay, maybe that’s a lot, but the film’s good moments are enough to make you not feel too much animosity towards the whole endeavor. C+

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