Director Shawn Levy has a way of ruining a perfectly good thing. The helmer of the Night at the Museum franchise, The Internship, and Date Night can’t be trusted with comedy, and he’s virtually untested with deep emotions.
This is Where I Leave You provides a unique creative challenge, forcing Levy to manage a plethora of characters and numerous shifts in tone, while shooing away melodrama and plastic antics to find the soul of this battered group of sad sacks.
He’s still powerless to sitcom urges, but Levy manages to capture dimension and sensitivity, aided in great part by an ensemble who shade their participation carefully, finding a familiar but charming look at dysfunction and enlightenment.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
This is Where I Leave You tries to sweeten the bitter pill by adding slapstick to everything.
Learning that his father has passed away, Judd (Jason Bateman) is called home to sit shiva with his family, comforting his mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda).
Discovering his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer), has been cheating on him for the last year, Judd is ready to fixate on other issues, reuniting with siblings Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Tina Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver) for a week-long exploration of memories and long-dormant antagonisms.
Struggling with his domestic situation, Judd finds a light in Penny (Rose Byrne), an old friend who’s never lost romantic interest in him, complicating his already strained headspace.
As the family works out abundant issues with help from their rabbi (Ben Schwartz), they enjoy a few moments of clarity before the real world threatens to crash in once again.
Adapting his novel for the screen, writer Jonathan Tropper has the unenviable task of pruning his own narrative tree to fit the confines of a movie. Overall, he manages, but moments are clearly missing.
Wendy is perhaps the hardest hit in terms of subplot, left disgruntled by a marriage that isn’t working and saddled with guilt over an accident from decades ago that left neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant in a bad wig) with a brain injury. It’s never developed and a few supporting characters register more as plot devices than people.
There’s a substantial amount of neuroses to hack through and, while Tropper’s management of his own work creates dramatic potholes along the way, he captures a larger arc of confession, with the shiva period used to remember a loved one and take care of unfinished family business.
Judd’s tale of wedding dissolution and townie temptation carries much of the film. He’s a shaken man, facing rich humiliations in his life, unemployment, and unexpected attention from Penny, while struggling to locate a memory of his father that’s clear and true.
Each sibling spends the feature working through their specific issues, most born from Hillary’s exploitation of their childhood failures to inspire a best-selling book. It’s not terribly fresh ground to cover, but the production remains true to the emotions instead of marginalizing traumatic events.
This is Where I Leave You contains plenty of comedy, but the light stuff tends to obscure what the movie does best in terms of characterization. Judd’s an interesting, complex guy. His siblings as well, who deal with infertility, neglect, and immaturity. The picture has presence as it works through their individual challenges, hitting several highlights of raw communication and catharsis.
Levy tries to sweeten the bitter pill with his habitual need to add slapstick to everything, generating useless moments of comeuppance and broad reactions as a way to appeal to the widest possible audience. He thins out the film at the wrong moments, almost afraid to engage the darkness of the plot.
Genuine moments of connection are undercut with cheap gags involving a toilet-training toddler and Hillary’s enormous breast implants—an image Judd wants flushed out of his mind.
This is Where I Leave You is clumsy on occasion, yet it achieves a satisfying understanding of aggravation and reunion, submitting lovely moments between siblings that are pure enough to resist Levy’s cartoon influence.