THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Shawn Levy

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, Ben Schwartz.

Life is occasionally messy, and so is this film.

When the Altman family patriarch dies, the four children return to their home town in Connecticut for the funeral. According to his final wish have to sit the traditional Shivah for seven days, but for much of the time they sit in awkward silence or rehash old wounds. But for some of the children the return to their childhood home stirs up lots of memories, some of them painful and uncomfortable. During a rather tense week, guilty secrets, frustrations and resentments bubble over. But there is also a sense of catharsis by the end of the week as the family are drawn closer together by their shared experience.

The family matriarch Hillary (veteran Jane Fonda) is a successful psychiatrist and author who drew upon the details of her four children for material for her best selling book Cradle & All, and there are still some simmering resentments from that decision.

For most of his life Jud (Jason Bateman) has played it safe, leading a straightforward and uncomplicated life. But events soon throw him into an emotional tailspin and his life becomes anything but uncomplicated. The producer of a shock jock radio program he comes home early one day to find his longtime girlfriend in bed with his sleazy boss (Dax Shepard). He is separated from his wife, but he has only told his sister Wendy (Tina Fey, from 30 Rock, etc), wanting to keep his failed relationship a secret from the rest of his family. But then he receives the news that his father has died and he returns home for the funeral.

While spending time with his family, he reconnects with Penny (Rose Byrne), a girl who had a crush on him at high school. She now runs the local skating rink, and sparks fly between the pair.

Wendy is a high strung neurotic trapped in an unhappy marriage to a self absorbed workaholic. While at home she reconnects with Horry (Timothy Olyphant, from Justified, etc), the brain damaged neighbour and former flame.

Paul (Corey Stoll, from Nonstop, Law & Order LA, NCIS, etc) is the oldest brother and the most responsible member of the family, who still runs the family sporting goods store in town. He has been married to Annie (Kathryn Hahn) for six years, but the couple has so far been unable to have children, despite trying, which has brought some pressure to their relationship. Their frustration builds to a new level during the week as the rest of the family gather.

And Philip (Adam Driver, from Frances Ha, tv series Girls, etc) is the youngest member of the family and an irresponsible playboy who has never quite grown up preferring to drift through life without any real direction or purpose. He arrives for the funeral with his latest and somewhat older girlfriend, a wealthy psychiatrist who is made to feel unwelcome by the Altmans.

“All of the Altmans are either sad, depressed, or cheating,” Jud confesses to Wendy during one of their regular little rooftop discussions, which adds a level of intimacy to their close relationship.

This Is Where I Leave You is based on the best selling novel written by Jonathan Tropper (best known for his work on Banshee, etc), who has adapted his book for the screen. However, the film is very melodramatic in nature and Tropper crams in more subplots and overwrought emotional entanglements than one year’s worth of a typical television soap opera. The whole thing is not very original, and offers up an uneven mix of drama and broad comedy and sentimentality that doesn’t always work. Much of the humour also lacks the necessary edge that could have made the familiar material a bit more interesting.

The director is Shawn Levy (Night At The Museum, The Internship, etc), a filmmaker who always plays it safe with his choice of material, and while he has certainly made plenty of crowd pleasing films (and a couple of outright shockers like the remake of The Pink Panther with Steve Martin) in his undistinguished career he is yet to make a great movie. His direction here is workmanlike and many moments fall flat. The film also feels overly long, and the wealth of characters and subplots still smacks of unnecessary padding at times.

Levy has assembled a solid ensemble cast who do their best to elevate the stale and formulaic material. The film wastes the talents of Shepard and Connie Britton. Byrne is certainly pleasant enough and has lots of on screen charisma, but it is a fairly thankless role, while Olyphant struggles to make much of a sympathetic but tragically underwritten part. Ben Schwartz (from Parks And Recreation, etc) plays a youthful Rabbi and former childhood friend of the Altmans, and he is one of the more interesting if unusual characters.

Bateman has a likeable screen presence and a quick wit and a good way with a punchline, and he makes the most of the material. Fey normally has a biting wit too, but here her character is more shrill and highly strung. Driver is the most interesting character here even though at time you feel like you want to knock some sense into him.

Fonda brings lots of gravitas and baggage to her role as the overbearing matriarch eager to have her children under the one roof for a while. She delivers a perky performance that revels in some risque dialogue and a healthy attitude towards life. And there are plenty of references to her surgically enhanced “bionic breasts.” But a late twist involving her character takes the film in a new but unnecessary direction and may well have audiences question the wisdom of this revelation at such a late juncture.

This Is Where I Leave You is an unfortunately bland title for an unfortunately bland mix of comedy and drama about another dysfunctional family gathering that goes wrong. The film explores familiar themes of infidelity, infertility, family, commitment issues, complicated sibling relationships, past regrets, guilt and angst without adding anything particularly fresh or original to the mix. But there is also a happy ending that delivers cathartic moments to all of the characters that somehow feels a little contrived.

★★☆

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