Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
This is Where I Leave You stands amongst those films that have a tremendous ensemble cast but never strive for anything more than safe storytelling choices and contrivances. The film comes from Shawn Levy, a traditionally studio-oriented filmmaker that doesn’t have a distinct style so much as a distinct knack for making money through highly commercial films (i.e., the Night at the Museum franchise, Date Night, Real Steel). This latest effort gets a release after premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, which is a fitting choice considering the crowd-pleasing nature of the narrative. The story is sweeping and often operatic when it involves characters facing the plight of dealing with their father’s death, yet the film’s comedy is the thorn in its side. The humor derives not from characters or even well-defined situations, but rather snappy one-liners that feel as insincere and clichéd as if they were copied and pasted from other better comedies.
The film centers on the aftermath of a family coming together for their father’s funeral, primarily looking at four grown siblings: Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a radio show producer that finds out his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer), is cheating on him with his boss, Wade (Dax Shepard); Wendy (Tina Fey), who has multiple children with a husband that’s absent and misses her former love, Horry (Timothy Olyphant); Phillip (Adam Driver), the oddball that comes to the funeral engaged to his therapist, Tracy (Connie Britton); and Paul (Corey Stoll), the level-headed one of the bunch that’s married to Alice (Kathryn Hahn), an old flame of Judd’s. Their mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), gathers them together to practice Shiva, a Jewish tradition of staying together for seven days after a family member’s death. This brings all of the chaos into one household and makes for an eventful week.
Each storyline gets about ten minutes of development. While that could be effective if there were subtlety within the film, This is Where I Leave You allows itself to paint broad pictures of potentially complex characters. There is depth within each of these creations, particularly Judd. Bateman provides a terrifically nuanced performance due to the hard-nosed drama coming from his life, particularly when he gets back to town and interacts with a homegrown girl played by Rose Byrne. The first scene of the film showcases Bateman’s acting talents and the possibility of the film being moving: he discovers his wife cheating on him and the camera juxtaposes his image with a mirror of himself sitting in the dark. Then he blows out the candles on his wife’s birthday cake and walks out the door, signifying him blowing out the flame of his love and moving forward. It’s a strikingly beautiful scene, but every scene after is filled with on-the-nose emotional cues and dialogue that never meshes with the strength of certain characters.
The supporting performances are strong yet most remain insubstantial in terms of their arcs. Byrne is delegated to nothing more than an object for Judd to discover himself while characters like Alice and Horry get one defining characteristic and drive it home. It’s frustrating considering the talent put on display here, with most of the actors attempting to elevate the material past its admittedly flimsy foundation. Jokes revolve around Fonda’s character’s boob job and most of the supposed laughs come from big proclamations coming at inopportune times during family gatherings. Not once did the comedic material strike me as sincere or grounded in any semblance of reality. The lines sound like they are being delivered by robots exchanging one-liners with one another. I love the cast in the film, and the strengths come from the dramatic elements of the stories. I engaged heavily with those. Yet much of the feature relies on trite, off-putting humor, leading to a middling, confused film.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)