Gifted Cast Succumbs To "This Is Where I Leave You"

Shawn Levy’s “This Is Where I Leave You” thinks it’s a comedy, a misunderstanding in the vein of a 1st grader believing she’s a wizard, or a dog acting like he’s a human. But unlike that girl, wand in hand, or that dog, paws on steering wheel, the film’s mix-up isn’t adorable – just upsetting. Early buzz credited the pic’s admittedly impressive cast with making a valiant effort to overcome a trying screenplay, but in reality they mostly sink to the film’s level, each one ostensibly assuming that the good parts were everyone else’s scenes. They’re all wrong, making for a blindingly inert drama-comedy that’s short on everything but boob job jokes.

Jonathan Tropper’s screenplay – based on his book by the same name – centers on a family who’s just lost their patriarch. The film’s first would-be gag sees the newly widowed Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) wildly yank a breathing tube from her deceased husband’s head while her daughter, Wendy (Tina Fey, NBC’s “30 Rock”), hurls curse words in her direction. Hah! Meanwhile, Wendy’s brother, Judd (Jason Bateman, “Identity Thief”), gets the news over the phone while trying to process his recent separation from a wife who was cheating on him with his boss (Dax Shepard, “Idiocracy”). Things get less funny from there.

At the behest of the deceased, Hillary’s kids return to the home where they grew up to sit shiva – a Jewish custom wherein first-degree relatives gather in one place for seven days to receive mourners. Corey Stoll (Netflix’s “House Of Cards”) co-stars as Paul, the third Altman sibling, Kathryn Hahn (“Step Brothers”) plays his wife, and Adam Driver (HBO’s “Girls) supports as Phillip, the youngest and most reckless of the Altman children. It’s a relief that these three – and the rest of the extensive cast – don’t get full backstories, but their introductions range from brief to non-existent. Hahn – playing the same airheaded, sex-starved weirdo she usually plays – is barely acknowledged until act two.

Rose Byrne, who displayed her comedic chops to great effect in this year’s “Neighbors,” plays Bateman’s tacked on love interest. The character is a cliche wrapped in a cliche, an ice skater who’s always found at an empty rink skating alone to 80s pop songs. Moreover, she has even less of an arc than her co-stars, beginning as an afterthought and ending the film in those same starting blocks – the prototypical girl next door with a strangely unrequited crush on our lead.

But the most egregious storyline is Fey’s star-crossed romance with Timothy Olyphant (FX’s “Justified”), playing a brain-damaged neighbor. Olyphant’s role is never fleshed out beyond “Wendy’s ex-boyfriend who never went anywhere because of a near-fatal accident,” but he doesn’t show any ill effects other than a scar on his forehead. Even worse, he’s initially played for laughs – to no avail – then used for a dead-serious romantic subplot – Fey’s character is married – that ironically provides the film with its funniest moments, all of them unintentional.

The entire piece plays like a compilation of deleted scenes, with no discernible tone or thematic undercurrent apart from “isn’t this family wacky?” The screenplay painstakingly sets up jokes that uniformly don’t land, like Bateman and his brothers getting high in temple. Levy and company mistake smoking pot in an inappropriate place for an actual joke, stretching it out well beyond its thirty-second shelf life. Worse still, Fonda is reduced to a walking boob job gag, her kids endlessly, creepily commenting on her new appearance.

Shawn Levy has been a frequent target of criticism for his ostensibly shallow, overly commercial filmography – “Night At The Museum,” The Pink Panther,” “Real Steel” – positioning “This Is Where I Leave You” – his first film aimed at adults – as a real opportunity to show off his instincts, sans restraint. The result is one of his worst films to date, a work with no personality to speak of that drags a talented cast down with it. The picture’s surplus of continuity errors ends up the least of its problems, leaving us to watch a capable swath of performers die on the vine.

One recurring gag features Fey’s toddler ambling around with a plastic toilet, defecating in the most unseemly of locations. There isn’t a better analogy for Levy’s film, a walking, talking, feature length sitcom that uses valuable resources to the worst effect possible. When it comes to audience reaction, the film deserves to be met with no less than its own title, no more than ten minutes in.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: September 19, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenwriter: Jonathan Tropper
Starring: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Abigail Spencer, Dax Shepard, Jane Fonda
MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content and some drug use)