The cast of This Is Where I Leave You, a new dramedy with five main characters and nine – NINE – supporting roles, brings an incredible wealth of acting experience to the film. The group is flush with two centuries of cumulative quality dramatic and comedic work; it boasts winners of Oscars, Emmys and many other awards; it features major movie stars and reliable character players; and it stars a member of Hollywood royalty. And it’s a good thing, too, because all of that talent is needed to salvage a film that confuses having a high quantity of storylines with having a high quality of storytelling.
Judd Altman’s (Jason Bateman) life goes from great to bad to worse in a blink. On his wife’s (Abigail Spencer) birthday, the successful radio producer, birthday cake in hand, walks in on her having sex with his boss, Wade (Dax Shepard). Not long after that, Judd learns from his sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), their father has died. Judd returns home (without his wife) and reunites with his sister and their other two siblings, brothers Phillip and Paul (Adam Driver and Corey Stoll, respectively), and their mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), to bury the family patriarch and sit shiva for seven days.
During that week, a lot of emotional ground is covered between and among siblings, spouses, old loves, and new loves, leaving everyone a different person than they were only one week earlier.
In a film with a cast this big, you can’t tell the players without a program, so here is your (spoiler-free) program:
Judd (Bateman): The Tender One. Deals with the affair between his wife (Spencer) and his boss (Shepard); rekindles an old romance with Penny Moore (Rose Byrne); receives somewhat predictable news later in the film (no spoilers); deals with his mother
Wendy (Fey): The Sister. Deals with a husband (Aaron Lazar) more interested in his career than his wife, child, and family; revisits past decisions concerning a neighbor she was once in love with, Horry Callen (Timothy Olyphant); deals with her mother
Paul (Stoll): The Eldest. Unsuccessfully tries to conceive with his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) for two years and counting (and with reminders of children all around them); annoyed about being reminded that Judd used to date Alice; attempts to buy out the other siblings’ shares of their late father’s store; deals with his mother
Phillip (Driver): The Youngest. In a committed relationship with his (considerably older) therapist, Tracy (Connie Britton); focuses his wandering eye (among other body parts) on a younger woman; deals with his mother
Hillary (Fonda): The Matriarch. Made her fortune as a therapist-turned-author, cashing-in on documenting the intimate secrets and growing pains of her own children; recipient of considerable breast augmentation; key part in a MAJOR reveal near the film’s end (no spoilers); deals with her children
Other: Linda (Debra Monk) is mother of Horry and an old family friend with a secret of her own; Rabbi Grodner (Ben Schwartz), comic relief with a funny nickname (no spoilers)
And there is Team This is Where I Leave You: 14 different characters (15 if you count the cute kid trying to potty train, 16 if you count the late Mr. Altman). The problem is the team spends all of its time running on ice – constantly in motion but never really getting anywhere. Yes, their lives cross and double-cross and overlap and join and separate and join again, but with basic two-dimensional traits (The Sister, The Oldest, etc.), they are more like pieces on a very busy game board, not human beings living lives. So much goes on, yet so little actually happens.
The breadth (and talent) of the cast is reminiscent of that in 2003’s Love Actually. The great difference between the films, though, is twofold.
First, the relationships between and among the Love characters seem happily coincidental – their lives come together in one way or another but it’s all very organic. (Even the fact Hugh Grant plays the British Prime Minister and Emma Thompson plays a regular citizen – but they’re siblings – seems perfectly normal.) In Leave, the characters aren’t so much intertwined as they are knotted together, in a way that’s almost suffocating.
Second, and more importantly, each of the storylines in Love is properly weighted; the fluffier tales are handled as such (lighter dialogue, less screen time), where the heavier stories get deeper treatment. In Leave, every storyline carries the same gravity and intensity as the others, and it all becomes too much as each tale fights for attention, like children trying to get noticed by a very busy parent. Because there is so much happening breaking developments continue to spring forth until nearly the end of the film, but by then you find yourself asking (rather fatigued), “Another one?”
Another victim of all of these goings-on is the film’s humor, which is threadbare, leaning heavily on three recurring bits: the cute potty-training kid; mom’s boob-job (as well as her embarrassing willingness to discuss her sex life – or anyone else’s, for that matter – with anyone who will listen, no matter how uncomfortable it might be); and the Rabbi’s nickname.
This leaves only the talent of the cast to make something of the film, and they deliver, despite the flat material.
Bateman earns his spot at the top of the cast list, delivering a solid performance in a role that seems well-suited to the cumulative characters he has played since childhood. His is a maturity that feels very natural onscreen. Stoll is also quite good, but is outshined (a little) by his onscreen wife Hahn. Fonda’s lifting is light and she shows she still has some comic timing, and Britton, while okay throughout, delivers a terrific last scene as she comes to terms with her situation.
The big disappointments, though, come from the film’s two biggest comedic talents. Byrne – comedy’s current It Girl (2011’s Bridesmaids, 2014’s Neighbors) – isn’t so much at fault as she is at rest; she has little to do here but be the cute, small-town girl everyone remembers fondly. Fey, though, struggles in her part. Her character is neither the center of attention nor the deliverer of the funniest lines. It’s a role that’s more dramatic than comedic, and it is a fully supporting role (neither lead nor cameo), and Fey struggles. It could be that she is only as good as the material she is given.
This I Where I Leave You‘s large and talented cast just barely makes the film worth a look. So much happens with and among and within and around the Altman family, it requires a little less direction and a little more air traffic control. The story would have played better as a well-developed 6-hour televised miniseries instead of a cramped 103-minute film.
Every so often an actor or actress comes along that finds their way into my blind spot – that place in my cinematic field of vision where I know the name and I probably recognize the face, but I just can’t connect the two. It isn’t a reflection on the talent, it’s simply the law of large numbers: I process so much film-related information from the last century that some stars – old and new – get a little lost in the field … that blind spot.
Most recently, that blind spot dweller is actress Chloë Grace Moretz.
The Atlanta-born Moretz has an impressive resumé for a 17-year-old, with numerous high-profile TV episodes (live action and voice work) and three dozen (!) films to her credit, including 2010’s Kick-Ass and Let Me In, and 2011’s Hugo. Given how competitive the world of child acting is, no one has the career she’s already had without doing good work and making smart choices.
Thus my befuddlement over If I Stay, a film that neither showcases her talent nor proves any shrewdness in her (and/or her management team’s) decision-making skills.
The drama, from director R. J. Cutler and based on the YA novel from Gayle Forman, is told along two timelines. One timeline is the tragic day in the life of Mia Hall (Moretz), a gifted teenage cellist and Julliard hopeful. On a fateful snowy day when schools are closed, the family decides to go for a drive because the roads don’t look too bad. An oncoming truck hits black ice on a winding road and crashes into the family head-on, leaving death and serious injury in its wake. Mia’s body is in a coma, but her spirit has an out-of-body experience that allows her witness everything that happens after the accident.
The second timeline is a series of (mostly) linear flashbacks that tell Mia’s story from childhood to current day, with a large portion of the story focused on her cello playing and her young love with Adam (Jamie Blackley), a high school classmate who plays guitar and sings in an up-and-coming Portland punk band.
As Mia relives her past and tries to make sense of her present, her future – her life – hangs in the balance.
I don’t think Moretz will ever find her way back into my blind spot, because it’s hard to forget anyone who is in one of the worst films of the year.
The troubles with If I Stay begin at the film’s foundation: its script. Of course with any film the script is critical, but a film like this, where the tragedy occurs early, requires strong storytelling and character building. We haven’t had a chance to connect with the characters, so we have to be transformed from passive eyewitnesses to tragedy (occurring to a family we just met) to vested members of that family. It never happens.
The flashbacks are stilted and the characters are walking clichés. Rocker parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) breed a classical cellist and make sacrifices when they hear how good their daughter is. A rocker boyfriend can’t be more opposite than the girl he loves but they fight to make it work despite their differences and conflicting career paths. A grandpa (Stacy Keach) seeks personal redemption through his granddaughter because he may have blown it with his son.
Even the hopes of attending Julliard are sullied by a mawkish contrivance that has the school’s yea/nay letter arriving the day of the accident, although after it occurs, of course. You see, the roads aren’t too bad for a family jaunt, but they are bad enough to delay the mail. Other contrived conveniences like this occur throughout.
The direction is no better than the script. Cutler, whose area of expertise up to this point has been documentaries, is simply not up to the task of creating the necessary fictional structure and flow to make the film work. Even if you blame the script for the flaws of the family, lovers, and relationships, Cutler is fully responsible for the film’s two key components: the car crash and the portrayal of Mia’s out-of-body existence.
The execution of the car accident is simply dreadful. This is a PG-13 film, and while that doesn’t mean it needs the maximum bloodshed allowed in a PG-13 film, it shouldn’t look like a driver’s ed safety film, either. Nothing about the incident – and especially its aftermath – is remotely believable.
As for Mia’s spirit-self, she can’t pass through solid objects like doors, and if that’s “the rule” then that’s okay. She never opens her own doors (although she seems to be able to touch solid objects), but Cutler doesn’t take the opportunity to portray her as subtle, either. She never slips through an open door; she dashes at opportunities like a track star being encouraged by her coach. It’s exhausting to watch.
Cutler’s lumbering direction is not helped by his technicians, either. Editor Keith Henderson finds moments in almost every scene to introduce an awkward cut or a clumsy shot selection. Cinematography from John de Borman is far too soft throughout, which actually causes the occasional moment of confusion as to when the story is in flashback versus present time. Even composer Heitor Pereira‘s score fails to capture the right mood at the right time.
All that remains is the acting, which is mostly lifeless. The weak script is no help, but beyond that, there is no chemistry between the parents, the kids, the parents and the kids, or Mia and Adam. Liana Liberato is okay as Kim, Mia’s best friend (but in a limited capacity). As for Moretz, the camera loves her (especially with all of those soft filters), and she has her moments with what she has to work with, but when history writes her tale, this will be a minor, if not unmentioned, entry.
If I Stay is loaded with amateur flaws, and it isn’t a film so much as it is a theatrical release of a made-for-TV After School Special. And even then, there isn’t anything special about it.
The idea exploded 15 years ago with the enormous success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and reinvigorated itself with 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Since then, it hasn’t looked back. And while horror is the main genre that utilizes this sub-genre to full effect, thrillers, sci-fi movies, and even comedies have exploited the found footage concept.
Every year sees numerous found footage film creations, and 2013 was no exception, highlighted by the excellent sci-fi space thriller, Europa Report. Also released in 2013 was another non-horror found footage film, The Upper Footage. The indie crime thriller, directed by Justin Cole, brings with it more than onscreen drama. It brings some offscreen drama, too.
Four 20-something Children of the One Percent – Blake (the Alpha Male), Taylor (the Alpha Moll), Devon (the Obnoxious One), and Will (the Nice One) – hit the New York City streets (via limo) in search of a good time, fueled by booze and substances of varying affect and street value. After a series of starts and stops, party favors are procured, Devon picks up a girl named Jackie, and the gang takes their limo back to Blake’s high-rise apartment (the one with the devastating view of the city) for a good time over a long night. Will, a vlogger, films the night for posterity.
But Jackie isn’t a seasoned partying veteran, and the voluminous combination of clear liquid and white powder is too much for the newbie. After a violent vomiting episode in Blake’s toilet, Jackie dies. With the camera still rolling, the high society foursome makes poor decision after poor decision when trying to determine what to do next.
The “offscreen drama” that I reference in the open of The Upper Footage pertains to the notion the events in the film were thought to have actually occurred, even beyond the usual “Is this real?” buzz that can surround a found-footage film. News outlets were convinced the footage was real. Entertainment shows featured the footage in televised stories. Young female celebrities of considerable notoriety were thought to have been involved. The film was even protested to the point of being pulled from NYC theaters because people thought a girl REALLY DIED (which would make this a snuff film of sorts). But this “marketing” feat – something that rivals (and in certain aspects surpasses) what The Blair Witch Project achieved – turns out to be the film’s greatest enemy. Without it – without the idea that the events of that evening happened as they were captured on camera – the film is mostly lifeless.
No sooner does it fade in, it stumbles as it labors through six minutes (!!!) of title cards dissolving in and out, presenting a long, at times arduous backstory about footage and extortion and lawsuits and pixelated faces and on and on. The intro has moments of interest, like when the Entertainment Tonight footage rolls and when Quentin Tarantino‘s name is invoked (trust me, it’s not worth explaining), but to sit through hundreds of words – even if the film had turned out to be a masterpiece – is far too much to ask. A more created method filling in the past needs to open the film, not a short story.
Once that sequence ends, what is offered is a tale told in two acts. The first act is nothing more than an edited “you are there” night on the town with the young and privileged. The foursome (with an occasional fifth, Chrissy, who seems to be there only to serve as a punchline for misogynistic barbs about how willing she is to have sex) rides around New York City, talking about nothing even remotely interesting or significant, complaining about having a hard time scoring drugs, and trying to figure out what to do. It has a real feel to it because the camera is all over the place, as if Will turned it on and sometimes shoots things and other times forgets it’s there, but that puts so much more importance on what is said, and what is said is nothing different than what you might hear in a food court at a shopping mall on a Friday night. Simply put, listening to bored people talk is boring.
The second act kicks off with an intense start when, after some apartment partying, Will finds Jackie dead in the bathroom. It’s here that the realistic camera work, and especially what you hear offscreen, is bone-chillingly realistic. The panic from the living room in the apartment sells the scene entirely.
And then everyone is back on camera and ad-libbing ad nauseam about what to do, grinding the film to a halt once again. There’s some occasional mild interest once they get Jackie’s body out of the apartment (of course they don’t call the police), but as the young and privileged, they make scores of poor decisions. Unfortunately for them (and for you), you could not care less about them because they have done absolutely nothing to endear themselves as people.
The way the film ends … that is, the way it ends before more title cards appear … is quite good, but there is so little to like in the run up to the conclusion that it simply doesn’t matter.
If you are curious about the girl with the pixelated face in all of the pictures, that’s Jackie. The hook is that her face has been obscured out of respect to her family – a clever conceit, I admit, as is the absence of any acting credits in the film or on IMDb. There’s even a suggestion (with a title card!) that a sex scene is edited out for the same reason. And yet seeing her slumped dead, head in a toilet, stays in. Oh, the filmmaking here.
The Upper Footage is a film built on a house of cards that crumbles under the weight of its reliance on its own gimmick – a gimmick that has long since been exposed. Without the thrill of wondering if the events actually happened, watching the film is an exercise in watching a mediocre improv troupe pretend to be brats with bad judgement and even worse decision-making skills. All that’s missing is the Friday night food court.
Disclosure: The producers made available to me a streaming copy of this film for review purposes.