By: Daniel Reynolds
There’s a running joke in the first half of This Is Where I Leave You, the latest film from director Shawn Levy, that involves a young boy and his portable potty. The kid finds himself in the periphery of a few scenes, taking a shit. You laugh in spite of yourself. The film basically forgets the young pooper exists, his usefulness as a comedic prop or emotional stake apparently spent. There are more serious matters to attend to! This is the story of the Altman family, their reuniting under one roof, and the “healing” process that must begin after their father – who we never quite see, but who sounds like a real dynamite guy – dies.
Before we get to that though, we meet Judd (Jason Bateman), a radio producer in New York City who discovers his wife has been cheating on him with his boss (Dax Shepard, forever the dirtbag cad). He falls apart – and then finds out his dad has died. His sister Wendy (Tina Fey) summons him to the funeral and we meet the rest of the Altmans: older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), younger brother Phillip (Adam Driver) and resplendent matriarch Hillary (Jane Fonda). At the apparent dying wish of their father, the family decides to sit shivah (though Hillary is definitely not Jewish, and their father was non-practicing) and so you just know that conflicts will arise, secrets will come out and all kinds of wackiness will get started.
To that end, we are quickly introduced to each siblings dominant dysfunction: Paul is too uptight, worried about the Altman family business and his anxious wife (Kathryn Hahn) who wants only to get pregnant; Wendy is the mother of two kids and has a husband – with a phone glued to his head for 90 percent of his lines – but who also has Timothy Olyphant – sorry, excuse me – a brain damaged Timothy Olyphant squinting after her across the street; Phil is the classic screw up and Lothario, showing up here with an older woman (Connie Britton) and her Porsche. And finally, our hero, Judd is grappling with the loss of the well-planned perfect life he thought he had, and, as these things usually happen, warming to the gorgeous single woman who just happens to be still in town, waiting for his sad-sack charms to sweep her off her feet. This woman is Penny (Rose Byrne) and when she’s not figure skating by herself in an empty ice rink she’s… um, she’s not doing anything. That’s as far as her character goes. (Oh wait, we do learn she’s on anti-depressants that make her “weird.”)
Working with a script from Jonathan Tropper, as adapted from his novel, Levy is tasked with marshalling these people into something that resembles a coherent movie. And given the amount of talent he has on hand, you’d think that would be easy. The cast appears game (or perhaps too game in Jane Fonda’s case), but the mawkish script leaves much to be desired. This Is Where I Leave You is what I call a Big House movie (like The Family Stone or Dan in Real Life) where the problems of a family are conveniently solved by the pressures of proximity and the over-abundance of free time. No one ever has anywhere else they need to be (except those assholes who dare to work for a living), and everyone is unhappy – even bemoaning their fate, as Judd does here, while sitting atop the roof of his family’s massive house. Movies like this operate in a Rubik’s cube fashion, with each scene ratcheting together different combinations of characters to inch the plot along and hopefully create comedic sparks, all done in nuance-free primary colours.
I outlined the dominant dysfunctions of the film’s characters but as per usual with Big House movies, dominant quickly tips into only. So, we get scenes where Judd mopes about his life, Paul yells about his responsibilities, and Phil screws up. So much for dimensionality. Poor Tina Fey gets to be put upon, cleaning up the messes of both her children and her brothers. Meanwhile, Connie Britton’s character (an older woman with a PhD) is a walking plot contrivance. Both she and her character – used and abused in this film – deserve much better. Hahn is reduced to wailing about babies and having a couple awkward sexual experiences. And Fonda, God bless her, gets to brazenly gab about her dead husband’s penis and show off her “bionic” breasts. I haven’t even mentioned Judd’s wandering ex-wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer), who basically just cries and fucks in this movie. That’s enough evidence to suggest a trend: This Is Where I Leave You has a problem with women. No surprise, since its lead character is himself trapped in a manic pixie dreamgirl scenario with Byrne’s figure skating queen. (She even likes Cyndi Lauper, how adorkable!) Then every so often we’re reminded that the Altman’s patriarch has died, just to remind us how heavy it all is. The dad is probably spinning in his grave.
Does this film sound overstuffed yet? When you’re not rolling your eyes at all of the contrivances, there are still scenes to be stolen. Fortunately Ben Schwartz drops by as Boner, or Rabbi Charles Grodner to oblige. He hates his nickname, but definitely loves the sense of “rockstar” entitlement his position allows. Schwartz does what he can to shine light on some hopelessly muddled scenes. And really that’s the best we can hope for. Even with a script and concept as tired as this one, it is hard for a collection of talented actors such as these to be completely non-entertaining. But then, This Is Where I Leave You eventually steers itself into the conclusion you always expected. A week in one house solves most everyone’s problems – except the people cruelly cast aside. The narrative arc is preordained. If I may, it reminds me of that kid in the beginning with his little toilet. You know the second it is introduced where its contents will end up. That’s the feeling you’re left with after this film; you’ve laughed a few times at a couple of tossed turds.