THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU Review: Our House, It Has a Crowd
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.