“You guys are idiots. But you’re my idiots.”
How do you get an oddball family to reconnect after years and years of not doing so? An unfortunate passing of their patriarch of course! This Is Where I Leave You begins with Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), an average and seemingly middle aged man with a solid career and healthy marriage. While coming come to celebrate his wife birthday, he stumbles upon a most unfortunate revelation: His wife is doing his boss, and has been doing so for a year.
His life now in shambles, Judd gets a call from his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) learning that their father has passed away. This of course forces the Altman family to come together for an impromptu reunion. The funeral was one thing, but as told by their mother (Jane Fonda), their father’s dying wish was for the family to spend one whole week under the same roof obeying the Jewish mourning tradition known as Shiva. In this one week the Altman clan’s already shaky-at-best bonds will be tested, but maybe just maybe some appreciation for each other will arise out of it.
With a simple but relatable premise mixing comedy with family drama, This Is Where I Leave You sets up to be a solid piece of entertainment, bolstered by a very recognizable and accomplished cast of actors. Well, at least on paper that is. TIWILY (nice looking abbreviation), has its moments but also its fails, in turn making a movie that is pretty average and disappointing with the promise it possesses.
The movie’s screenplay is written by Jonathan Tropper, who also happened to write the novel that this is based on. With the continuity there, you would think that the script would carry over to the other medium without a hiccup. If only it were that easy. I have not read the book, but I kept on thinking when viewing that maybe some things were lost in translation from the pages to the big screen. Despite its simplistic presence, there is a lot going on here that gives the movie a bloated feeling with so many characters crossing paths and constantly coming in and out and back in again.
Comedy-wise, there are some good laughs to be had, and they generally come through the dialogue of the characters in this less-than-desirable situation. By that sense, it is written well and the characters sound like real people. Any film with Jason Bateman and Tina Fey in it is going to be planted in the comedy genre, but TIWILY has a great deal of drama and heavyness in it, and it is a little unclear as to what it really wants to be. In a nutshell, it is a dramedy but it shifts tonally so often and so quickly between scenes that it becomes a little difficult to buy into. Seriously, there are musical cues that give clear indication to the audience, almost as if the movie is telling us “OK, it’s time to stop chuckling and time to get serious.”
With the cast assembled for this, what most are given to do from a character sense underwhelms. Really, only Bateman’s character gets fleshed out and explored, and not surprisingly, he gives a very effective performance. His character is one to sympathize with and get behind, and his growth throughout is evident. The same cannot be said for the rest, mainly because they just aren’t allowed to. They are saddled with template characters seen before in other places, be it the irresponsible and outspoken young buck of the family (Adam Driver), the uptight boring brother (Corey Stoll), or the politically incorrect and unabashed matriarch (Jane Fonda). It is to their credit along with the solid dialogue that they’re still able to generate laughs, but that doesn’t translate into investment to their characters. Even the growth of these characters (aside from Bateman’s) that the movie desperately wants you to buy into feels nonexistent.
As a direct result of the lack of inability to make the characters interesting, it is a bit of a stretch to buy everyone as a family. You end up seeing Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, and company as themselves. This in turn makes the film almost like an extended comedy skit suited for Saturday Night Live in certain places. Sure it is still fun to watch, but since TIWILY is rooted around a dysfunctional family unit, believing that this is a real family is crucial to the experience. It appears that even the actors themselves ham it up to prove that this is such a dysfunctional family. Not every movie has to be believable, but certain ones suffer more if the feeling is not present.
With so much promise, it is a big downer to see This Is Where I Leave You as it is: A middling family-get-together-from-hell film that is inconsistent and more familiar to other stuff than desired. Evidence of what it could have been is strewn here and there just enough to not be completely down on the movie, but it will still most likely leave one in a “wishing more from it” state of mind.
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