Screenwriters have taken to heart Tolstoy’s famous saying, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Dysfunctional family dramedies hold a niche market in Hollywood, from “The Family Stone” to “August: Osage County” to “Little Miss Sunshine.” These movies appeal to audiences — they make us laugh while reminding us that everyone is a little screwed up behind closed doors. “This Is Where I Leave You,” adapted from Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 bestselling novel, is no different. Starring nearly every in-vogue actor from both TV and film (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Connie Britton, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne and more) the film is an enjoyable but forgettable addition to the category, flitting between relationships with ease but failing to develop many of the characters.
This Is Where I Leave You
Rave & Quality 16
Led by matriarch Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda, “Monster-in-Law”) the four grown Altman siblings reunite under unfortunate circumstances: the death of their emotionally distant father. His final request is that the family sit Shiva (a Jewish ritual in which the family must stay in mourning for the seven days following his funeral). The siblings are not pleased, harping insults and complaints at each other that teeter between funny and clumsily one-dimensional. Bateman (“Arrested Development”) stars as second brother Judd, bearded and cynical after he catches his wife cheating on him with his boss, misogynist radio personality Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard, “Parenthood”). Bateman is exactly what we’ve come to expect from him; a quippy, restrained Everyman. The shtick works, but fails to graze Judd’s depth in the novel.
Throwing in this many talented actors (from vastly different comedic and dramatic backgrounds) can be dangerous. Personalities can overwhelm relationships until we don’t see a family so much as a group of hysterical individuals. Thankfully, this is not the case in “This is Where I Leave You.”
While some performances are stronger than others, the joy of the film comes from the seemingly organic interactions between siblings. Fey (“30 Rock”) and Bateman demonstrate the unique sibling ability of openly hating and loving each other in equal measure; though Fey struggles at times to balance her tearful, dramatic moments with her comedic sharpness, their relationship feels genuine. Similarly, Fonda excels as their overbearing, over-sharing psychologist mother. The writing tends to rely too much on her physical humor (i.e. the gigantic fake breasts glued to her chest), but she grounds the film as the erratic but ultimately caring center of the family. Her youngest, Phillip, is played to exuberant, irresponsible perfection by Adam Driver (“Girls”), who is setting himself up to be the next great actor of our generation. And the consistently flawless Connie Britton (“Nashville”) is surprisingly well cast as his much older fiancé — she matches his selfish dynamism with measured, well-coiffed honesty.
Despite these successful pairings, the film tends to fall into the standard book-to-film adaptation problems — too much plot and too many characters are shoved into a two-hour film, diluting the significance of many scenes. As a professed lover of the book, it was often frustrating to see characters or scenes fall by the wayside for lack of time — for example, the normally transcendent Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”) was wasted as eldest brother Paul, who in the novel was brooding and deeply emotional underneath his stoic exterior. In the film, his few lines register him as the sturdy and stodgy older brother, with no real development beyond that. Similarly, the pacing is often off, clunkily hedging between slapstick and emotionally wrought family moments. Tropper wrote the adaptation himself, and at times it feels as though he forgoes the most interesting portions of the book in favor of clichéd movie moments.
Though enjoyable, the film doesn’t live up to many of its family dramedy movie predecessors or the book it was based upon. Perhaps it’s the abundance of television stars, or the comfortable suburban setting, but “This Is Where I Leave You” feels more like a sitcom than a movie, built up with easy laughs and schmaltz rather than real moments.