When I read Jonathan Tropper’s novel This Is Where I Leave You, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, but I figured it could be made into a funny movie with a talented cast. Now the movie version is here, and a talented cast has indeed shown up. And the movie is definitely funnier than the book. The trouble is, it still left me unsatisfied in the same way.
Our point of entry into the story is Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a radio producer whose life implodes when he comes home one day and finds his wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard). Soon afterward, he receives word that his father has died after a long illness, and even though the Altmans have never been observant Jews, the old man’s dying wish was that his loved ones sit shiva for him. Judd finds himself having to spend the traditional seven-day mourning period trapped in the family’s spacious house in upstate New York with his mom (Jane Fonda), his three siblings, and a gaggle of assorted spouses, significant others, and kids.
Early in the book, Tropper delivers a set piece containing Judd’s comic, violent, and incredibly gross retaliation for the adultery. Why, oh, why didn’t the filmmakers keep this in the movie? The film is already rated R (mostly for language), so it wouldn’t have compromised anything. Maybe there were logistical problems regarding some delicate stuntwork by a naked actor, but it seems more likely that director Shawn Levy didn’t have the stomach for it. Granted, we can’t all be Judd Apatow, but the man who directed The Internship, Date Night and the Night at the Museum movies quails in the face of the more mature subject matter on offer here. Compare the scruffier look and rawer emotions that David O. Russell brought to the similar Silver Linings Playbook, and this movie looks fatally tame. Tropper adapts his own novel to the screen, and his snappy dialogue is often reduced to such greeting-card platitudes as, “Anything can happen. Anything happens all the time.”
With writing like that, you wind up watching the actors, and even they are not always served well by the material. Bateman mostly falls back on the weary, resigned, am-I-the-only-sane-one-in-this-family act that he used on TV’s Arrested Development. He’s interesting only once, in a well-played scene when his older sister Wendy (Tina Fey) successfully needles him into coming clean to the rest of his family about his marriage, and he boils over. Fey manages to be livelier as a woman who’s practically a single mom given how much her husband (Aaron Lazar) neglects her, but this part, of a woman filled with regrets over her current life and the brain-damaged first love (Timothy Olyphant) she left behind, doesn’t suit her. Meanwhile, Corey Stoll, who was so funny playing Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, is pretty much a zero as eldest son Paul, who’s desperately trying to impregnate his wife.
As Paul’s wife and Judd’s ex-girlfriend, Kathryn Hahn gives the movie a shot of adrenaline, but as in too many other films before, this brilliant comic actress isn’t given enough to do. A similar predicament greets Rose Byrne as the manic pixie dream girl who’s ready to catch Judd on the rebound. Levy keeps using her wrongly — has he not seen Bridesmaids or Neighbors? That’s what you ask Rose Byrne to do. Amid this starry company, Fonda gets a few moments to flex her authority and does some fine work as a celebrity therapist who flaunts her new fake boobs and tells graphic stories about her sex life with her husband, then can’t fathom why her kids are so repressed. Even better is Adam Driver as the Altmans’ youngest son. His rowdy energy and offbeat sense of comic timing fit the role of a man-child who’s always blurting out inconvenient truths, and his presence has a catalyzing effect on his co-stars.
The actors’ efforts are admirable, but This Is Where I Leave You remains a movie that’s torn between wanting to be funny and wanting to be a respectable, grown-up drama. It fails comprehensively at the latter and succeeds only fitfully at the former.
This Is Where I Leave You
Starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda. Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his own novel. Rated R.