The dramatic family comedy. A staple in our modern day film scene. Throw is some folky pop music and a few stars and you’ve got yourself a big giant cliche ready for the theaters. There are ways to do it right, though. If you can pull your film out of melodrama and into actual emotion then you can hit the nail on the head. It happens.
It only half happened here. This Is Where I Leave You boldly teases at pushing its characters and feelings in interesting directions, but holds back far too much. It leaves us with a family dramedy that works on basic levels, but never transcends its genre.
This Is Where I Leave You
Director: Sean Levy
Release Date: September 19, 2014
Adapted by the book of the same name This Is Where I Leave You kicks off with Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) finding his wife cheating on him with his boss. Then his father dies. Pulled home to sit shiva thanks to his father’s last request he collides with the rest of his family. There’s the unhappily married Wendy (Tina Fey), is newly enhanced mother Tina (Jane Fonda), his older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) who is desperately trying to have a child with his wife, and his screw up younger brother Adam (Phillip Altman), who has returned home with an older woman (Connie Britton). The focus of the film is Judd as he rekindles a romance with Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), but the entire family has pretty heft parts.
That’s the part of the film that works. The comedy and stars actually hit well. It’s hard to pull a cast together like this and have chemistry, but everything works really well. Fey and Bateman are especially strong as brother and sister, but the real stand out is Altman, whose younger brother antics are the best point of the film. His character seems the most honest out of all them and while other plot lines falter by crossing the line into cliche and melodrama his stays interesting throughout. His is also the best plot for fully understanding the family dynamics that are probably better represented in the book, but can fall short in the film. In any case it is the charm of the actors that pulls this movie up when it begins to falter, and thanks to them makes the comedy work.
Unfortunately the drama side of things doesn’t always. While Adam’s plot line is intriguing and dynamic many of the rest are not. That’s especially true for Bateman’s character, which is unfortunate since he’s the lead. His story follows too many of the normal trope, and while interesting things are happening all around him they’re shoved out of the way for a unfortunately tired love story that even has the line I’ve always seen you uttered in it. A more balanced family story would have brought far more interesting plot lines into focus like Wendy’s faltering marriage and Paul’s quest to have a child. These story lines actually feel engaging, but they’re never looked into enough to become anything more than background noise.
There are laughs to be had here, though. As I said the cast is top notch and they make some really good comedy even better. While site gags like Tina’s new breasts freaking out her children are pretty juvenile they still work. Even better is the banter between the family members. That cast chemistry really shines through when they’re throwing barbs at each other, and when they screenplay is letting the cast play it actually feels like a family. It’s just when the film steps over the emotional line it robs many of the interesting family story lines of their impact.
Coming out of This Is Where I Leave You you feel like asking why they left you here. You’re somewhere between entertained and ambivalent, and it’s just not the best place to be. While the stellar cast and minor plot points save the film from being truly bad there just isn’t enough here to make you really feel. A commitment to not pushing outside of the family dramedy box lets the film falter too much to be anything special. If they’d really taken the characters and worked with them it could have been fantastic, but instead we’re left behind wondering what could have been.