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Josh Reviews This is Where I Leave You

October 27th, 2014
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This is Where I Leave You is written by Jonathan Tropper, adapting his book of the same name, and directed by Shawn Levy, who has directed many popular comedic films, none of which I have ever had any interest in seeing.  (These films include the two Cheaper By the Dozen films, the Steve Martin Pink Panther remakes, the Night at the Museum movies, and others.)  But I was intrigued by This is Where I Leave You because of the phenomenal cast and the interesting premise, and my wife really enjoyed the book on which it is based.

When their father dies, the four Altman children learn that his last wish was that they all return home to sit shiva together for him.  (Sitting shiva is a seven day-long Jewish ritual of mourning.)  Though the family is not Jewishly observant and are estranged from one another, they all agree to do so.  The film follows the seven days during which the Altman family-members are forced to interact with one another under one roof for the first time in many years.

Each member of the family has their problems.  Judd (Jason Bateman) has just discovered that his wife has been sleeping with his boss for the past year.  Wendy (Tina Fey) is trying to handle two young children without much help from her distant businessman husband, and she still carries a torch for the boy who grew up across the street.  The eldest brother, Paul (Corey Stoll), feels that he has carried the family business without any help from his siblings, and also is carrying a lot of tension with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) because they are having trouble conceiving a child.  The youngest brother, Philip (Adam Driver), is the irresponsible baby of the family, and he’s currently dating a wealthy therapist, Tracy (Connie Britton), who is much older than he is.  These characters are joined by their non-Jewish mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda); Penny (Rose Byrne), the girl who used to have a crush on Judd; Judd’s unfaithful wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer); Judd’s former friend and boss, the loudmouthed D.J. Wade (Dax Shepard); Horry (Timothy Olyphant), the boy next door who years ago suffered a brain injury; and the Altmans’ neighborhood friend who has now become a rabbi, Charles Grodner (Ben Schwartz), who can’t seem to shake his unfortunate childhood nickname of “Boner.”

Just look at those names.  This film boasts an extraordinary ensemble of actors.  I wish they were in a better movie.

Don’t get me wrong, This is Where I Leave You isn’t bad.  It’s just extremely middle-of-the-road.   This is a movie that feels very designed to be appealing to as wide an audience as possible.  I wish that it had either been funnier or more emotionally resonant.  With such a clever premise, I could have seen this story — a crazy family all trapped together for seven days in one house — building to extraordinary comedic heights, the way a great farce like, say, the original British Death at a Funeral does (click here for my review).  Alternatively, I would have enjoyed had the film dug deeper into its dramatic aspects to create a story that was more genuinely moving, the way one of my favorite films from last year, The Way Way Back did (click here for my review).  That great film managed to be very funny but also richly emotional.  This is Where I Leave You rests in an unfortunate middle ground.

But this cast is so great that they’re able to carry the film.  Jason Bateman is terrific and so watchable as usual.  He’s the “everyman” center of the story, but he gives Judd Altman enough quirks to still be interesting.  Tina Fey is also, of course, great fun to watch, and she capably handles some of the film’s more poignant moments.  (Though she has one crying scene that felt disappointingly fake to me.)  Adam Driver is the film’s stand-out, hugely funny and loud and lovable.  His work as Philip seems at first like just variation on his role in Girls, but if you look closer it’s actually quite a different role.  Mr. Driver really lays on the charm here, and he is a lot of fun to watch.  Jane Fonda digs into the role of the family matriarch with relish.  She is perfectly cast.  I love Kathryn Hahn and wish she had more to do in the film.  She’s great with what she’s given, but I feel we barely got to know her character.  Same goes for Rose Byrne, who has been a bright spot in several comedies from the past few years.  It’s a shame that once Judd sleeps with Penny, Ms. Byrne mostly drops out of the story until the end.

For a story with such a Jewish premise, I wish there was a little more Jewish content in the film.  And no, putting a plate of hamentaschen and a bowl of pickles in the foreground of a scene in the Altman kitchen as Judd and his mother wash dishes doesn’t do it for me.  (Note to the non-Jews: Jewish people don’t keep hamentaschen in their houses all year long.)  It’d have been nice had any of the Jewish Altman kids actually been played by Jewish actors.  (Jason Bateman and Tina Fey discuss playing “fake Jews” here.)  More troubling to me was the depiction of the Altmans’ rabbi, played by Parks & Rec’s Jean Ralphio himself, Ben Schwartz (who actually IS Jewish).  I think Mr. Schwartz is a terrific actor, and he does some funny stuff in this film.  I like the idea of his character, a young guy who used to be a goofball/screw-up but who is now trying to grow up and hold a position of responsibility.  But the depiction of the Jewish prayer service that this Rabbi runs is insane (with Mr. Schwartz clowning around embarrassingly, followed by everyone singing “Hineh Mah Tov,” which is indeed a Hebrew song but not a prayer that would be said in a service — seriously, the filmmakers couldn’t make the effort to actually figure out a real prayer to use for the two seconds it would be on screen?).  I think it’s a shame that in this movie about a Jewish subject, the one actual observant Jew we see on screen (none of the Altmans are practicing Jews) is a figure of such ridicule.  And let’s be clear, I have nothing wrong with making fun of a Jewish religious figure!  I was A-OK, for example, with the caricatured rabbi and mohel we saw on Seinfeld.  That show was an out-and-out comedy, and a rabbi is as much fair game as anyone else.  But this movie is trying to tell a dramatic story, one whose whole basis is on a Jewish ritual.  As such, I wish the one character who is actually supposed to be a practicing Jewish figure who takes Judaism seriously wasn’t presented as such a boob.

On the positive side, one of my favorite aspects of the film was the story of Wendy (Tina Fey)’s relationship with the injured boy-next-door, Horry (Timothy Olyphant).  That was a very sweet, sad aspect to the film, and I liked that the film allowed the two characters’ back-story to be revealed slowly and subtly as the film progressed.  When we first meet Horry, the audience has to wonder what is up with that character, and the movie slowly reveals Horry and Wendy’s connection and history.  There’s no big info-dump exposition scene, it’s very natural.  I wish the other story-lines in the film had that subtlety or surprise.  Most of the other character-stories in the film — and this film is jam-packed with characters and their intersecting story-lines — are relatively by-the numbers and not that surprising.  I love how packed the film is with incident, I just wish the characters had been developed further so that I cared more deeply about what I was watching.

I had a perfectly pleasant, enjoyable time watching This is Where I Leave You in the theaters, but I doubt this will be a film I’ll be revisiting soon.  I’m thinking, though, that maybe I should read the original novel…!

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