'This Is Where I Leave You'
‘This Is Where I Leave You’ is a kindler, gentler version of ‘August: Osage County’ to watch with your mom. The movie plays mild family dysfunction for mild laughs and milder drama. It’s like a cup of instant chicken noodle soup – superficially as warm and pleasing as the real thing without any real nourishment.
Jason Bateman stars as a Jason Bateman type: a kind and funny man whose life just fell apart, but at least he can smile about it as often as he frowns. His marriage collapsed when he found out that his shock jock boss (Dax Shepard) was sleeping with his boring wife (Abigail Spencer). His father also died around the same time, so he has to return home to spend time with his lovingly fractured family. His sister (Tina Fey) has a disinterested husband and a slut-shamed past. His older brother (Corey Stall) resents having to keep the family business afloat and just can’t impregnate his wife (Kathryn Hahn), who is also Bateman’s ex-girlfriend. His younger brother (Adam Driver) is a perpetual screw up with mommy issues, and is currently dating his much older former therapist (Connie Britton). Finally, his mother (Jane Fonda) loves to talk about her sex life with their father and made a fortune writing novels based on her children’s lives. Around the edges are side characters like a brain-damaged old family friend (Timothy Olyphant) and a high school girlfriend who Bateman never got over (Rose Byrne) that add to the overall dysfunction and love. Cue laughter and tears.
This basic concept and cast could have easily delivered a harshly comedic bit of suburban satire had directorial duties gone to someone like Todd Solondz or Noah Baumbach. In the hands of Jonathan Demme, it could have been warm, touching and human. Sadly, the man put in charge was Shawn Levy, who specializes in safe mainstream fluff like ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ and ‘Night at the Museum’. He’s not a filmmaker interested in realism or satire. He’s a man who makes gentle entertainment, and that’s exactly what ‘This Is Where I Leave You’ is. Sure, there are big explosions of sadness and humor, just never in a manner that approaches reality or commentary. The actors make big jokes about topics like poop, weed, loud sex and boners. They also deliver big monologues about how tough life is and how much they love each other even when they hate each other. There’s nothing here but a wisp of light entertainment. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the movie presents itself as being raw and meaningful, which it decidedly is not, and that can be damn frustrating.
Now, it’s hard to get too worked up about Levy’s decision to shoot straight for the middle with a cast this good. Actors like Bateman, Fey, Hahn and Driver know how to milk the most laughs out of any gag and are also credible enough as performers to make a teary monologue feel like something resembling human emotion. Simply watching the diverse collection of talent assembled on screen at once is enough to make you smile, and Levy works their collective skill and charm as hard as he possibly can. The flick is fun in the moment with plenty of scenes that feel like more. The trouble is that when you add it all up as the screen cuts to black, there’s very little to the movie beyond the cast.
This isn’t a terrible movie, just mediocre and generic. I’ve seen worse dysfunctional family dramedies and I’ve seen been better. I’m sure that I’ll see many more of these movies in both extremes as well. For now, ‘This Is Where I Leave You’ scratches a certain itch that audiences might have. If you need it, enjoy with low expectations. If not, just wait a year and try out the next version of this forumla instead.