This Is Where I Leave You
Written by Jonathan Tropper
Directed by Shawn Levy
This Is Where I Leave You is an odd duck. Its haphazard combination of broad sit-com humor and quirky indie earnestness leaves you feeling a bit punch-drunk. On the other hand, a superb ensemble cast wrings just enough energy from these surprisingly-nuanced characters to ensure that the laughs outnumber the cringes. Ultimately, Leave is like a bad relationship; you can see all the flaws but you just can’t seem to let it go.
Leave revolves around decidedly ‘First-World problems’ that will leave some audience members screaming, “If you want a complicated life, try mine on for size!” At its heart, this is a simple little story about a family re-uniting at the behest of their dying father. We get the usual litany of clichéd family dynamics: an older brother (Corey Stoll as ‘Paul’) protecting the family business from his irresponsible kid brother (Adam Driver as ‘Phillip’); the middle brother (Jason Bateman as ‘Judd’), hopelessly adrift between the life he envisioned and the mess he created; the disapproving but protective sister (Tina Fey as ‘Wendy’) who acts as a surrogate for their uncouth, self-involved mother (Jane Fonda as… Jane Fonda) who used her kids as fodder for a best-selling novel. Their secret resentments, buried by the convenience of distance and time, percolate to the surface during one explosive week that will change their lives forever.
Yeah, we’ve been over this ground before.
What makes Leave a bit more complicated than the usual family melodrama (such as last year’s overwrought August: Osage County), is the quirky humor and exhaustive character detailing. Director, Shawn Levy, seems to have good instincts for dramedy. When he senses a scene is in danger of becoming too saccharine, he enlists the comedic talents of Fey and Bateman to defuse the situation. Both actors are equally adept at verbal and physical comedy, capable of conveying just as much information with a wrinkled brow as a sarcastic jibe.
Unfortunately, much of the comedy foregoes this subtle charm in favor of over-the-top zaniness. As good as he is at balancing the drama and comedy, Levy struggles with finding a consistent comedic tone. You’re just as likely to find two characters fighting over a garden hose as exchanging sublime one-liners. These two tones oppose one another; the dialogue-heavy scenes never allow the physical gags to build, while the physical gags seem like unconvincing alternatives for such thoughtful characters. Consequently, there aren’t any ‘big’ laughs in Leave, just a series of chuckles and knowing nods. It’s disappointing that Levy didn’t stand aside and let his stellar cast do the heavy lifting instead of relying on unconvincing pratfalls.
Lovingly adapted from his own novel, writer, Jonathan Tropper, gifts each character with a backstory far richer than most character studies. Perhaps Tropper’s most inspired idea, however, is pivoting his story around the 7-day mourning ritual in Judaism known as ‘Shiva.’ Instead of just sticking his characters in a big house and letting them hide in separate rooms, Shiva forces them to sit together and accept the awkward condolences of mourners. As the days pass, the tensions build and the booze flows. It’s a delightful device that ensures maximum comic carnage when the defenses finally lower.
Sadly, the backstories in This Is Where I Leave You are more interesting than the primary storylines. There’s so much going on here—so many conflicts and sub-plots—that there simply isn’t time to develop them to maximum effect. The entanglement between Judd and a long-forgotten townie (Rose Byrne) is somewhat charming, but there’s no time to nurture it. The same applies to Wendy and her old flame living next door (Timothy Olyphant), who are only allotted time for wistful glances and implied sex romps. The result is an episodic story that relies upon two characters pairing up for their ‘big scene’ of reflection and revelation. Some of these scenes strike with surprising poignancy because we have grown to like the characters, but, mostly, it becomes tiresome and predictable once we recognize the pattern. Tropper the screenwriter needed to be more ruthless with the stories of Tropper the novelist.
Ironically, This Is Where I Leave You is so overflowing with ideas that it feels much shallower than the filmmakers intended. Thoughtful themes about growing up and taking risks get lost in the wacky shuffle of mom’s enormous fake boobs or toddlers pooping on training toilets. Still, this divine cast eventually wears you down with their inherent likeability and comedic chops. If you enjoy watching gifted actors practice their craft, this movie is worthy of paying your respects.