Shawn Levy’s “This is Where I Leave You” is yet another ensemble funeral dramedy, a subgenre that feels, overall, a little stale and overdone at this point. It’s one of the easiest ways to bring a large group of people together in a short time. Usually a dysfunctional family but always a group of people who have grown apart. The death suddenly brings them together into a claustrophobic environment, where they have to put on polite and pleasant guises to mask awkwardness or pent up aggression.
There will be heated arguments, thoughtful—sometimes tearful—moments of remembrance of the deceased and also memories shared between the living. Old passions and urges will be pursued, emotional baggage will be laid on the table for everyone else to see and characters will always always make fools of themselves during some formal get-together, usually an after funeral party. All of this happens, more or less, in Levy’s film and most of the time in a flat, predictable manner.
This isn’t to say that movies within the genre can’t be done well, Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill” —it’s not about a family but it’s the same idea—and John Wells’ phenomenal “August Osage County” from last year come to mind. “Where I Leave You” is essentially a sanitized version of “August Osage,” which isn’t totally a bad thing. However, “August Osage County” had an acid tongue and a dark comedy punch that wasn’t always pretty to look but always felt raw and honest. The characters weren’t afraid to yell and stomp their feet, asserting their dominance and their true feelings for their family members, making for an unpredictable entertaining time. Levy’s picture by comparison resorts more to sentimentality, hits the same gags over and over again and goes for a more neat and tidy ending. It’s not a bad film by any means but it doesn’t do a whole lot to rise above its genre trappings.
The movie revolves around the estranged Altman family. After the father dies, the kooky therapist mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) rounds up the four kids for a week of much needed family time. There’s Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), who’s been chugging through his life, playing it safe and convincing himself that he’s happy when he’s not. Bateman is good at playing a polite prick, but a likable prick nonetheless. To make matters worse, before the get together, he finds out that his wife has been cheating on him for a year with his boss.
Then there’s Wendy (Tina Fey), the feisty, picking-and-prodding older sister who also cares deeply for her siblings and wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them. She’s trapped in a passionless marriage and still in love with her hometown flame Horry (Timothy Olyphant). See what I mean by past passions and temptations? And you can bet that she acts on those. There’s the oldest child Paul, (Corey Stoll) a nice, stable guy who’s trying and failing to have a kid with his wife. And finally, the young screw up Phillip (Adam Driver), a lighting bolt of immaturity. Driver—who’s been on a roll of late—is the best thing about “Where I Leave You,” stealing every scene he’s in and providing a nutty unpredictable energy that the rest of the movie mostly lacks. The action is primarily framed from Judd’s point of view; he’s easy to talk to and a good listener. As mentioned before, Bateman is likable in the role but it’s also not too far from what he’s done numerous times before. His screen presence isn’t as refreshing as Driver’s is.
The rest of the actors are pleasurable to watch, even though they’re playing stock characters and there are a handful pretty great high-energy comedic moments throughout the picture. When Judd, Phillip and Paul smoke a joint during Temple—the family is Jewish—or Wendy punching Judd’s jerk boss Wade (Dax Shepard). The scene where a baby monitor is left on in a room where Paul and his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) are having loud, aggressive sex and the entire family—plus guests—can hear it.
But then there are those flat moments. Lots of them. Moments where the siblings share childhood memories of their dad or themselves and conversations where they talk about their problems and how unhappy they are. Some of these are sincere, but they begin to feel repetitive and slow the movie down, often times killing the comedic vibe completely. Plus they’re all accompanied by the same melancholy piano cue, which drove me crazy after a while.
There are other issues; certain jokes—Hillary’s new breast implants, for example—get beaten into the ground fast, a third act revelation from Fonda’s character feels a little too out of the blue and contrived and an exhaustive ending that tries to tie everything up neatly. “This Is Where I Leave You” will probably play well with a general audience—better than “August”—which is perfectly fine but it doesn’t breathe any new life into the subgenre.