A Great Cast Has Nothing to Do in 'This Is Where I Leave You'

Even though the actors are given parts that suit their usual skills, they all bring extra self awareness to their work.

This Is Where I Leave You

Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, Connie Britton, Adam Driver, Cory Stoll, Rose Byrne
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Rated: R
Year: 2014
US DVD release date: 2014-12-16

One day, Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) comes home to find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his boss Wade (Dax Shepard). To make matters worse, almost immediately his phone rings; it's his sister Wendy (Tina Fey), who tells him that their father has just passed away. Bateman’s eyes widen in this scene to the point where we don’t even need words to understand that he has just realized that at that very moment he might as well be the unluckiest son of a bitch in the entire world.

Similarly, on the other side of the conversation, we see Fey’s expression: she’s trying hard to convey her character’s own sadness, as well as the fact that Wendy knows she is disappointing her brother by calling specifically for this. It’s obvious based on the gestures of the actors that these characters don’t talk very often. If the whole of This Is Where I Leave You was as rich as the talent of its performers, we would have been in store for a real treat.

Next, the whole family gathers at the funeral. We meet older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), the level-headed sibling who helped their father run the family business; his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who is desperate to have a child; Wendy’s husband Barry (Aaron Lazar), who spends most of his time ignoring his wife (not that the plot gives him that much to do anyway); and youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver), a pot-loving, playboy who arrives with his new conquest, a sexy middle-aged therapist named Tracy (Connie Britton). Overseeing this collection of loony characters is the Altman matriarch, Hillary (Jane Fonda), a famed therapist who made a name for herself by writing extensively about the lives and issues of her children. Unsurprisingly, the kids now have an extra pair of reasons to resent her: she has just received very obvious breast implants. Hillary informs their children that her dying husband had but one wish, to have them sit shiva, which means they will have to spend a whole week together.

The biggest issue with This Is Where I Leave You is that it puts all of its trust on the clichés of the plot, rather than on the chemistry and synergy set in motion by its cast. For example, there is nothing monstrous about Hillary’s implants, especially considering she is played by Fonda, who is highly regarded as one of the most sensual septuagenarians in the world. Her star power and sex appeal distract us from the idea that we have to find her character ridiculous. We might even find ourselves thinking less of Hillary’s children for failing to acknowledge how “cool” their mother actually is.

The screenplay was written by Jonathan Tropper, who adapted it from his own novel. Tropper seems to have been unaware that some compromises had to be made in order to make the plot more organic. The first half of the film, for instance, is overcrowded with unnecessary expository details that either do little to inform us more about the characters, who are then are left undeveloped. This is particularly the case when it comes to the characters of Annie and Barry, who are pretty much pawns in the Altman game. Similarly, Wendy and Judd get love interests in the shape of friendly neighbors Horry (Timothy Olyphant) and Penny (Rose Byrne), respectively, who the film uses to ask typical questions about whether “home was where the heart was” and all that.

As the film often falls victim to sitcom conventions, it continually fails to answer the main question anyone would ask: why would these people, who so obviously dislike each other, agree to the dying wish of someone they didn’t seem to be particularly fond of to begin with? The answer might be simply that the shiva is only the excuse to set into motion a nonsensical plot that elicits more yawn than "aww".

This is truly a shame, given that all of its players are at the top of their game, bringing refreshing self-awareness to their parts despite the fact that they all have been cast in roles that seem custom made to fulfill their usual skills and ask very little of them. Besides the aforementioned Fey and Bateman, who every now and then acts a bit too much like his character from Arrested Development, Driver is sensational as the man-child who knows much more than he’s willing to admit. Hahn is terrific as usual, bringing a heartbreaking despair to Annie. Meanwhile, Fonda chews the scenery without ever forgetting to give Hillary a soul. The best in show, however, is Britton, who the plot often tries to reduce to a sexy, exploitative cougar but is in fact the one character in the film who seems to know life for what it truly is. While people around her are fighting over petty causes, she looks into the distance fully aware that since she will only get one chance at life, she might as well make the most out of it.

The Blu-ray edition of This Is Where I Leave You includes a 1080p transfer and a series of bonus featurettes exclusive to the Blu-ray, including deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes look featuring interviews with the cast. Oddly enough -- or perhaps not at all -- the bonus features also feel like they were made without putting any thought on whether they work as a whole or not.


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