This is Where I Leave You Review: This is Unfortunate

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The film adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 best-seller boasts an ensemble cast of A-listers, but fails to elevate itself from the clichés of its genre.

Ah, family. The one group of people you’re stuck with no matter what. Isn’t it funny how the people we’re supposed to love the most are often the people that drive us completely crazy? I’m sure there are a lot of families that can attest to this truth, and its a wonder that Hollywood hasn’t mined this idea for all its comedic and dramatic gold. Oh wait, it has.

Stories of dysfunctional families have been around for ages, especially stories that feature estranged relatives being forced under one roof. The genre lends itself to oscar-nominated fare like the recent August: Osage County, or lighter, often holiday-themed, films like When Do We Eat? and The Family Stone. Every family has its ups and downs, and so its easy to see why studios love to make movies about them. They’re hilarious, heartwarming, and instantly relatable.

Tropper’s novel, however, stood out from the pack. His story of a Jewish family coming together to sit shiva for their deceased father was provocative, unpredictable, and very, very honest. Perhaps its best quality was its unboundedness. Nothing was fixed and wrapped up with a pretty bow, because in real life, one family reunion doesn’t magically solve all your problems.

This is Where I Leave You, the film, tries to carry some of this over, but it too often tries to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Some might find the movie’s opening to be shocking, but compared to the completely riotous first chapter of Tropper’s book, it’s incredibly tame. That’s not the only difference that was made in this story’s journey from page to screen. Entire backstories are cut, character dynamics are changed, and the ending doesn’t offer the same sort of emotional potency. I know, I know. It’s unfair of me to continually compare a film adaptation to its source material. It’s just frustrating that such a complex novel has been dummed down into a much blander script, especially given the fact that Tropper also serves as the film’s screenwriter. Why would an author do that to his own work?

On its own, This is Where I Leave You fails to really distinguish itself from its fellow films of dysfunction. The story centers around Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) who, in the span of a few weeks, catches his wife sleeping with his boss and then learns his father has passed away. He comes home to sit shiva for seven days and is reunited with his siblings, each of whom have their own problems. His sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is in an unhappy marriage and is still harboring feelings for her childhood love (Timothy Olyphant), his older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is struggling to conceive a child with his wife (Kathryn Hahn), and his youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) is trying to drown out his immaturity by dating an older woman (Connie Britton). So, of course, things don’t go so smoothly when everyone gets back together.

A large part of what makes dysfunctional family movies a success is the fact that they often feature a large cast of superstars—and who doesn’t like to watch talented actors play off each other? The performances are this film’s highlight, with each of the actors getting a chance to show their range. Fey and Bateman bond wonderfully together as brother and sister. Britton and Hahn make the most out of their smaller roles. Jane Fonda, as the family’s matriarch Hillary, is able to anchor down the cast during large group scenes.

The real standout, however, is Driver, who manages to have chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with. His devilish, charismatic portrayal of Phillip isn’t too far of a departure from his Girls character Adam Sackler, but there’s enough of a difference to show he’s so much more than a one trick pony. If anything, this film offers the chance to watch an exciting performance from an actor whose star is clearly on the rise.

What the film really suffers from is a lack of originality. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the MuseumDate Night) is certainly a fan humor, but doesn’t really seem to know how to let the story be funny on its own. Almost every heartwarming or serious moment is interrupted with a moment of levity so we know nothing is ever really too sad. The script doesn’t do the film any favors either, with Tropper adapting his descriptive syntax into typical snarky remarks and easy dramatic tropes. There are a few scenes—especially the ones with the delightful Rose Byrne—that strive to be earnest, but most of the movie works so hard to make you “feel” something, that it ends up losing its true feelings in the process.

There are plenty of talented actors in Hollywood, but what’s interesting about this particular bunch is their eclectic nature. You’ve got actors from both lauded TV comedies and prestigious TV dramas, and Oscar-winner Fonda at the center of it all. A group this diverse should provoke any director or screenwriter to want to make the most out of them as possible. Sure, This is Where I Leave You has some fun interactions, but everything else is pretty par for the course. It’s a shame really, because this adaptation could’ve been great if the people behind it were willing to take more of a risk. Grade: C

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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