I should start off with a disclosure - I am not a huge fan of director Shawn Levy. He has directed a large number of pretty mediocre comedies. And mediocre is a kind word to describe both "Cheaper By The Dozen (2003)" and "The Pink Panther (2006)". He also seems to be a filmmaker unafraid to embrace the sequel, no matter what the creative cost. The one bright spot in his CV used to be "Night at the Museum", but even this has become murkier with not one, but two sequels, each of which seems to detract a little of the magic from the original. And he also likes to work with the same people repeatedly, making four cookie-cutter films with Steve Martin, three films with Ben Stiller. Coincidentally, two of Steve Martin's most financially successful films, but certainly among his least critically applauded.
So "This Is Where I Leave You" seems a lost cause. But the cast was too good to pass up, so I waded in.
Using a screenplay adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own book, Levy weaves together the tale of four adult children who return to the family home for their dad's funeral. When they arrive, Mom (Jane Fonda), writer of a successful self-help book using the problems of her four children as case studies, insists the children sit shiva for seven days. Wendy (Tina Fey), the oldest, is the first to point out that mom isn't Jewish (Dad was) and they have never observed any of the religious ceremonies or holidays. Mom doesn't care. Judd (Jason Bateman), a radio producer recently separated from his wife, gets a broken pull out couch in the basement. Wendy and her husband and two kids get her old bedroom, Paul (Corey Stoll), who now runs the family sporting goods business, and his wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn) get his old bedroom. Alice is also Judd's former girlfriend. She and Paul are desperate to get pregnant. Phillip (Adam Driver), the youngest, shows up at the funeral, driving a Porsche. Later, his older girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton), a psychiatrist, arrives. Judd eventually runs into Penny (Rose Byrne), a younger woman who once (still?) has a crush on him. And Wendy stares longingly at the next-door-neighbor's oldest son, Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who still lives at home due to an accident many years ago.
Naturally, when you put so many adult siblings together under one roof, they are going to begin to get on each other's nerves. And the scars left by their mother exposing their secrets to an International audience quickly flare up.
Unfortunately, from my brief synopsis you can probably already guess some of the situations and comedy moments that arise.
"Leave You" also works really hard to create relationships that are believable. These work most of the time. Fey, Bateman, Stoll and Driver have good chemistry together and this helps you believe in their sibling rivalry. Each has quips to share, memories to relive to push a brother or their sister's buttons. There even seems to be a moment when a switch is turned - all four adults seem pretty normal at first, but as soon as they begins shiva, it almost seems as though there is a specific moment when each of them regresses to their teenage personas and begin fighting about all of the old family issues.
Each of the siblings has a part of the narrative devoted to them, albeit the percentages seem to shrink with the actor's popularity. Batemen's Judd is at the center. We spend some time with him before he goes back home because we have to see the break-up with his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer). This is the event that shapes his interactions with his siblings. Also, the person who he reveals this news to first also helps us figure out who he is closest to. When Judd returns home, he runs into Penny and he tries to figure out if he should pursue a possible relationship with her.
Wendy is the oldest child, so she has a special place in all three brother's hearts. Now, as a mom with two kids and a distant husband, she seems almost relieved to be back home. This gives her the opportunity to lust after Horry (I don't get the name, not at all). Her husband is only seen a few times, which works perfectly to provide a pretty accurate picture of his character. She is also the voice of guidance to her brothers, providing the ear and voice they never got from their mother, who was too busy writing books and being famous to be a parent.
Phillip, the youngest son, is played by Adam Driver, who seems to be rising fast on the Hollywood Hot List. From his role on HBO's "Girls" to a role in the new "Star Wars" film, he seems to be everywhere. Phillip is the black sheep of the Altman family, the son who always gets into trouble and never follows through on any project. When he drives up in a Porsche and then introduces the family to his older girlfriend (Britton), his brothers and sister already have the relationship figured out. But Phillip also has less reason to edit his comments and responses and knows what to say to get his siblings riled up, especially his oldest brother Paul.
Corey Stoll, a veteran of a lot of television work, and the least famous of the actors, plays Paul the oldest brother, who stayed behind to run the family business. He has the least amount of screen time, but he does make an impact. His relationship with his wife, is funny and a little touching. But it also seems to be just the Cliff Notes.
When Judd meets up with Penny, and they begin their relationship again, it is nice to watch them figure things out. Judd is trying to decide what to do, and it gets complicated because he can't communicate what is going on with Penny and she therefore does not understand the situation.
The relationship between Wendy and Horry (nope, still don't get it) is even more difficult to understand and define. Yet, it is given even less screen time. Because of this, they are reduced to a series of longing glances across rooms. Fey does have a nice moment when she gets to talk about her true feelings for her long-lost love. Yet, she is describing these moments to Judd which makes the emotional impact a little strange.
There is a real missed opportunity with this relationship. Because it isn't developed enough, Fey's Wendy seems simply snarky and unhappy.
Adam Driver seems to have the most fun with his character. As soon as he reunited with his siblings, his defensive mode returns and he begins to make quips and insults that serve to push their buttons, particularly Paul's.
Jane Fonda does some good work. She seems aware the impact her book has had on the lives of her children, but she doesn't seem to care all that much, feeling that they should be able to accept their status as subjects in her famous book. She is, at once, overbearing and loved by her children.
"This Is Where I Leave You" is far from a perfect film, but it does have some moments of laughter and even manages some real emotion. But because there are so many characters, it is difficult to build a significant, real story for all of them. What we are left with are the Cliff Notes of their relationships.