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Review: Bickering family dramedy 'This is Where I Leave You' is all feels, few jokes

A talented cast sits Shiva in the bickering family dramedy "This is Where I Leave You," although it's more sap than yuks.

Sitting Shiva might be more fun than most of what transpires in "This is Where I Leave You." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures Sitting Shiva might be more fun than most of what transpires in "This is Where I Leave You."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

‘This is Where I Leave You’
Director: Shawn Levy
Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The dysfunctional family genre is like comfort food: Everyone bickers, there are jokes and then the third act is one gooey mess. “This is Where I Leave You” skips right to the goo. It starts with Manhattan dweller Judd (Jason Bateman) walking in on his wife (Abigail Spencer) banging his boss (Dax Shepard). Shepard makes some Shepard-y jokes, then Judd walks into another room and sad music blares. That’s how the whole film roles: Something bad happens, one of the cast makes a joke, then director Shawn Levy dunks the film in pathos.

Things get worse for Judd. His father dies, and his three siblings and mom (Jane Fonda) are forced to obey his dying wish: That the family spend an entire week sitting Shiva in their childhood suburban manse. They don’t all get along: Eldest son Paul (Corey Stoll) hates youngest son Phillip (Adam Driver). Actually, that’s it. Each one’s problems are really with themselves: Judd finds himself at a crossroads, repeatedly explaining that he spent his life never taking chances. Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) has one of those movie workaholic husbands. Phillip presents his new, older fiancee (Connie Britton), but can’t handle being back in the same town with some old flames.

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Adam Driver (between Tina Fey and Ben Schwartz) is tasked with creating most of the comedy, albeit mostly through weird line readings, in "This is Where I Leave You." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures Adam Driver (between Tina Fey and Ben Schwartz) is tasked with creating most of the comedy, albeit mostly through weird line readings, in "This is Where I Leave You."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

There are jokes, but most of them are about funny actors, not material. Driver is tasked with doing skewed, Adam Driver-style line readings. Most of the jokes recycle themselves, and there aren’t that many of them anyway; it’s just endless repeats about mom’s new boob job and a kid who likes to poop. It has trouble negotiating through its ensemble cast, giving short shrift to ones who deserve more screentime. For the most part it’s the guys’ show, with Fey and Fonda given little to do, and Kathryn Hahn — as Paul’s wife, who can’t seem to get pregnant — surreally wasted.

Not that it isn’t sometimes semi-affecting anyway. While the plot orchestrates any manner of genre staples — right on cue there’s the medical emergency — some of the threads retain a messiness that briefly overpowers the corn. Bateman gives a grumpy soulfulness to Judd’s plight, while Fey’s own problem proves pretty affecting: She’s back across the street from Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who was her boyfriend until he was sustained a debilitating brain injury from a car accident. They hesitantly exchange glances but know they can’t be together. (Also welcome: Rose Byrne, playing Judd's girl-that-got-away-who-never-moved-away. As in "Neighbors," she has a loose, flirty alertness that's, here, resistant to sap.)

It’s a good fight, though: Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) never shies from slipping in Michael Giacchino’s uncharacteristically sickening piano score at the slightest whiff of an emotional moment, killing any chance of this being grumpy fun on the order of even a “Home for the Holidays.”And even the Fey-Olyphant business is marred by distractingly clunky dialogue. (Him: “If I hadn’t had that accident…” Her: “If WE hadn’t had that accident. I was in the car too.”) It wants to be an honest look at the pain of life, complete with Wendy launching into a monologue about fate being against them. But good vibes are always right around the corner. “You guys are idiots,” Wendy says at one point. “But you’re my idiots.” It’s an insincere film that’s always up for giving up.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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