Some of the best shows on television revolve around family life. “Modern Family,” for example. And movies have tackled the same topic with originality and skill. “Ordinary People,” for example. Or my wife's favorite, “Home for the Holidays.”
Unfortunately, “This Is Where I Leave You,” which is in theaters now, doesn't quite live up to those standards, despite having a first-rate cast. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
If you were to look the term “family dysfunction” up in a dictionary, you might see a picture of the central characters from “This Is Where I Leave You.” In adapting his own novel, screenwriter Jonathan Tropper places great emphasis on the notion that this is one screwed-up family.
Being screwed-up, of course, is a relative condition. All these characters are troubled. Depressed even. Unable, or unwilling to relate as a family might. All, then, are definitely unhappy. But only in what we call a first-world fashion.
Yes, middle son Judd (played by Jason Bateman), is having a particularly hard time. We’ve barely opened our Milk Duds before Judd discovers, one, that his wife is having an affair with his boss and, two, that his father has died. But guess what? His siblings are all facing some sort of crisis, too. Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is married to a jerk and still pines for her former lover. Brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is desperately – even grimly, but vainly – trying to impregnate his wife. Baby brother Philip (Adam Driver) may be the happiest of the bunch: manifesting his Peter Pan syndrome by carrying on an affair with a woman a good 15 years his elder.
One thing is clear: Each sibling feels no need to connect with any other family member. Which is why, following dad’s death, Mom Altman (Jane Fonda) calls them all home and expects them to sit Shiva – the traditional Jewish manner of grieving – for seven long days. Her intent is clear: Forced intimacy.
Of course, as Tropper’s screenplay makes clear – as clear as director Shawn Levy can make it make anything – Mom idea of intimacy is part of the problem. She wrote a best-selling book on child-rearing, a tell-all tome centered on her own family, that made her kids – to their ever-lasting shame – mini-celebrities. Not only does she seem to not realize the effect this has had on her family, Mom gushes to anyone willing to listen the juicy details of the great sex she had with her dead hubby – all while displaying the ample charms of her augmented breasts. Fonda, a two-time Oscar winner, eats her dialogue as if they were bites of kugel.
And Fonda is hardly the movie’s only skilled actor. Bateman has become one of the most reliable straight men in TV or movies. Fey’s “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” credentials make clear her comic appeal. And so with the others: Stoll (who played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”), Driver (best known for the HBO show “Girls”) and various others, from Kathryn Hahn to Rose Byrne, Dax Shepard to Timothy Olyphant.
No, the problem with “This Is Where I Leave You” isn’t due to the cast. Nor does director Levy do much that is noticeably wrong. The movie just plays off-key from the start, with sitcom situations subbing for real emotional entanglements and subsequent resolutions feeling about as deep as – speaking of the First World – a 20-second ad for Geico car insurance.