Monday, September 22, 2014

Family Tries: THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU


A family gathers in the shadow of their patriarch’s death, four grown children living under one upstate New York roof for one week at the behest of their mourning mother. “You can cry. You can laugh. There’s no right way to grieve,” the mom (played by Jane Fonda, carrying more dignity than the plot allows) says early in This is Where I Leave You, a movie that wants you to do a little laughing and a little crying. It’s a fairly contained and awfully schmaltzy comedy-tinged drama, completely predictable in the beats that it hits. Uptight jerks learn to loosen up. Irresponsible cads mature a bit. Generational gaps are bridged, but slightly. The grown kids have a prickly, but deep down loving, reunion that involves old grievances, new secrets, and a reason to rethink their lives’ trajectories. The film’s heart is in the right place.

The ensemble is filled with welcome faces, each an interesting presence in their own right. There’s Jason Bateman as the middle son, a man who loses his job and his wife on the same afternoon and arrives for the funeral convinced he won’t share his bad news. Of course that doesn’t happen. It’s a secret-spilling free-for-all. His sister (Tina Fey) is in a marriage in the process of chilling, so much so that her husband only lingers around two or three scenes, a total non-issue the rest of the time. She has an adorable kid or two, so that’s nice, except for the scene involving potty training gone wrong. That’s gross. Also back to sit shiva is their older brother (Corey Stoll). His wife (Kathryn Hahn) wants to get pregnant, a goal that drives her a little crazy in a condescending way. There’s also a younger brother (Adam Driver) and his cougar girlfriend (Connie Britton). Talk about a full house.

The ensemble is strong, if unevenly deployed in thin subplots. Bateman and Fey have good rapport, with similar clenched braininess that feels warmly familial. Stoll gets lost in the shuffle, but is a steady, mildly neurotic, rock, and Driver seems incapable of an uninteresting line reading. Mother Fonda gets lost in the sea of subplots for most of the film, drifting through as only a punchline for her oversharing and her boob job. She deserves better. They all do, really. Jonathan Tropper’s screenplay (based on his own novel) gives each family member their own little undercooked plots, complete with their own, largely separate, set of supporting characters (Rose Byrne, Ben Schwartz, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard). None of them are all that interesting on their own, but collectively, it adds up to a passable amalgam of middle-aged concerns and family tensions.

Director Shawn Levy is an effective manipulator, able to execute material efficiently and professionally. I liked his robo-boxing movie Real Steel, and found small charms in his Cheaper by the Dozen remake, one-crazy-night comedy Date Night, and unfairly maligned flop The Internship. Those aren’t great movies, but at least they hit some good notes. With This is Where I Leave You, though, despite all the soft lighting, on-the-nose pop song choices, and sunny greeting-card encouragements, the movie never quiet achieves emotional lift it seeks.

I couldn’t help but wonder what a Robert Altman type would’ve done with this material, and not just because the family’s last name is Altman. With such a large, talented ensemble in a small location, a balanced approach with overlapping dialogue and thematic concerns might’ve worked better. Though certainly non-Altman family reunion films like August: Osage County and Dan in Real Life manage to hit similar notes with greater aplomb that Levy and Tropper’s work here. It’s bland and comfortable, but never really comes alive in any way. Still, for a superficial, sentimental, predictable little middle-of-the-road thing, it could be worse. 

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