This Is Where I Leave You is the new dramedy from Director Shawn Levy, who many not be a name most are familiar with, but chances are you’ve seen one of his films. Through his massive hits like Night at the Museum, Just Married, Cheaper By The Dozen, Pink Panther and their sequels, his films have grossed some two BILLION dollars worldwide. This makes him one of the most commercially successful directors of the last decade. But as you can probably tell by the titles mentioned, he’s also one of the most critically panned. It’s clear he doesn’t make films for the critics though – he just wants to make family friendly crowd pleasers – and if box office receipts are any indication, crowds certainly respond kindly. Though The Is Where I Leave You is his latest attempt at doing just that, this time he’s delivering a film just for the adults.
Based on the best selling novel from Jonathan Tropper – who also penned the screenplay – This Is Where I Leave You follows a fairly run-of-the-mill story line. A family reunites to their childhood home after a loved one dies. Things happen. They learn things about each other and themselves and then they leave. But when these films are done well, they can be powerful and moving portraits of family and human nature. So does Levy’s film adaptation achieve this? Well, it almost gets there.
Much like the recent August: Osage County, which follows a similar (but far more dramatic) thematic path, Levy has brought together a huge (and talented) ensemble to tell the story of the dysfunctional Altman family, with Jane Fonda playing the Matriarch and Jason Bateman and Tina Fey amongst her four children. Sitting on the outside is an ensemble cast that holds the likes of Rose Byrne, Connie Britton, Dax Shepard, Ben Schwartz and Timothy Olyphant – most of whom are terribly underutilized. Which given the size of the cast, is perfectly understandable.
But herein lies the problem of the film: there are just too many stories Levy and Tropper are trying to tackle here, and too many great actors who feel like they’re sitting on the sideline in lieu of Bateman as Judd, who serves as our focal point. For instance, the dynamic between Fey and Olyphant is one of the film’s most fascinating explorations, but when we find out how Olyphant suffered a brain injury, it feels like it’s rushed off on us so as not to dwell on the “drama”. In the book, I can only imagine this reveal was part of what made it the best seller that it was. But in the film, we don’t get long to take it in before we’re enjoying the one gag Fonda exercises through the whole film – her fake boobs. Which is quite funny at first, but when it feels like you’re cutting out quality content for the sake of boob jokes, you start to get the idea of what the filmmakers think of their audience. For Levy, this is no doubt force of habit. To Fonda’s credit, she does deliver (the boobs) well.
The storyline between Rose Byrne and Jason Bateman, which serves as the main arch of the film, is nice but predictable – I felt like I was watching Garden State at times (and Byrne here is every bit as lovely as Portman). Topically they’ve ticked all the boxes here; everything from family tragedy to infidelity to failed attempts at having children to general sibling rivalries are covered, but again amongst it all is an attempt to hide drama in humour, which I feel backfires as it’s rarely that funny. This is no Death at a Funeral. To their credit, sometimes they do succeed in achieving heartfelt moments and there’s certainly no challenge in watching the film, but if you’re making a film for adults, you don’t need to hold their hands along the way. This is the problem that Hollywood faces time and time again. Why speak down to your audience? If the book was a best-seller, shouldn’t the assumption be that we can handle it?
Though by no means is this a bad film, This Is Where I Leave You does little to make it that interesting. It’s just all been done before – and it’s been done better. The most unique aspects of the story seem to be brushed off to the side to keep it from getting too “dark”, while the funny moments (and there are a few of them) are too far and between anyway to make the argument worthwhile. I feel like both the director – as per his nature – and the writer – as per the studio’s insistence – worked so hard to make a film that would make people “happy” that they missed the opportunity to make what could have been something provocative; quite the opposite of what Levy usually achieves. In the end, we are left with a wholly average film with a great cast and a lot of potential.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
This Is Where I Leave You is now screening nationally.