A dysfunctional family in a movie is nothing new. Every holiday sees a slew of films featuring families that come together for Christmas or Thanksgiving, only to have their different views and bottled up frustrations come out just as the turkey is being carved. As for the rest of the year, we are given films about a bunch of strangers, whose only connection is blood, coming together after a family member (usually the non-celebrity father) passes away. And most of the time, these films feature “beautiful white people with beautiful problems”, who live in Country Living homes in idyllic New England neighborhoods.
This is Where I Leave You is no different.
The film follows Judd (Jason Bateman) who returns home after his father suddenly passes away, only months after he caught his wife in bed with his boss. He arrives at his childhood home to see his mother (Jane Fonda) and his three siblings, Wendy (Tina Faye), Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver). Per the request of his late father, the family must sit Shiva, a Jewish tradition where, for seven days, a family opens their home to mourn the death of the loved one, which consists of prayer, reflection, and lots of food. As you can imagine, this is far from what this family wants as they have all grown apart over the years. Thus the conflict begins.
Directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and based off of a book by Jonathan Tropper (who also wrote the screenplay), This is Where I Leave You does very little to challenge the recycled notion that a family grown apart must come together when forced to be under the same roof. There is very little in the film that we have not seen before countless times, and the twists and revelations are unfortunately cloaked with familiarity. The film’s tone also suffers, as it never quite knows where it wants to be. For a large part, it’s an R-rated comedy, but on the other side of the coin there are moments of overwhelming sadness that leave you shifting in your seat. We are never given enough time to feel one emotion before making a complete turnaround to the other side of the spectrum. It is rather jarring and makes it harder for the audience to connect to the story.
Luckily, the film is saved by a wonderful cast. Just as many of the films in this tired sub-genre, This is Where I Leave You is packed with a bunch of familiar faces (new and old), who all help elevate the film into something not entirely forgettable. Bateman leads the cast, in a role we have seen him play countless times, and manages to step it up just a bit further than usual, showing a wider range of talent. He is likable without being likable and after every bad thing happens to the man, we naturally feel sorry for him.
Of Judd’s siblings, the standout performance comes from Adam Driver (HBO’s Girls). Driver plays the “screw-up” of the family, as well as the youngest. He is over-the-top in an entirely care-free live-hard kind of way, and provides a large part of the humor in a rather dark film. While this is far from being the breakout performance of Driver (that will be Star Wars: Episode VII), it is a rather fitting introduction to an actor we will most certainly see quite frequently in years to come. He is charismatic, he is aloof, and he is just goofy looking enough to feel like we could have someone like him as a friend in our actual lives. It is hard to pinpoint the exact reasons, but we are immediately drawn to Driver and his character.
Filling out the rest of the cast are a handful of recognizable faces. Rose Byrne plays a former flame to Bateman’s Judd and she is just strange enough to be cute without being crazy. Timothy Olyphant has a small role as Horry, a family friend who is sadly brain damaged and cannot quite function as well as the rest of us. It is surprisingly a good fit for Olyphant, as the character is a laid back, quiet individual who used to be much more capable than he is now. Another wonderful addition to the cast is Ben Schwartz, who plays the family’s rabbi. He is obnoxious to a point, but manages to deliver even more laughs than Driver, and is clearly the films’ comic relief.
Unfortunately, This is Where I Leave You is just too busy of a film. The great cast is wonderful, but there is simply not enough time to give each character the attention they deserve. This is by no fault at the hands of the filmmaker, as you are only limited by what you can squeeze into 90+ minutes, but a sad case where a book adaptation may not have worked as well as others have before. On the pages, there is plenty of time to spend with the characters, but on screen they are all fighting for that valuable face time. What results is a rather clumsy film that cannot quite find its tone.
That being said, This is Where I Leave You is just too hard to hate. It is enjoyable, as redundant as many of the themes and ideas may be, but it never strays into terrible territory. It is a serviceable film that does what it needs to do without giving us much more. It is safe, just funny enough (luckily it’s rated R), and perfectly vanilla. And quite frankly, that is completely okay. It does not try to be anything more and it does not hide what it is. And for that, I can appreciate it.
The Good: A wonderful cast- some great laugh out loud moments- and an awesome soundtrack
The Bad: A lack of originality- familiar tropes- and unequally shared screen time
The Family: Dysfunctional in every sense of the word and rich, white, beautiful, and packed full with problems
This is Where I Leave You also stars Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, and Dax Shepherd. The film opened to a wide release on September 19.