Arts & Culture

Review: “This Is Where I Leave You”

Or, “This Is Where Fine Actors Waste Their Talents.” Read More

By / September 29, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You, the latest offering from director Shawn Levy, is based on Jonathan Tropper’s novel of the same name. But the film never bothers to explain the significance of its title and probably would have benefited from something a little more descriptive, like This Is Where Fine Actors Waste Their Talents, This Is Where We Make Incessant Jokes About Fake Boobs, or This Is Where A Dad Dies and Nobody Really Cares.

The protagonist of this frenetic mess is Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), whose life is already in shambles when he learns that his father has succumbed to an unspecified, but evidently severe illness. Judd seems to find the death of his father mildly heartbreaking and terribly annoying; the funeral forces him to head to the ‘burbs and reunite with his abrasive family members, who don’t know that Judd is on the verge of a messy divorce. The Altman siblings soon learn that their father’s dying wish was for his children to sit shiva in his honor, which they are upset about because a) it means they will have to spend seven whole days together, and b) they will have to sit on low chairs.

As the Altmans interact in close quarters, we discover that Judd’s three siblings are also leading tattered lives. There is Wendy (Tina Fey), a snipey mom of two who spends much of the film lusting after an old flame (apparently this is OK, because Wendy’s husband is a conveniently obnoxious businessman). Paul (Corey Stall) and his wife are on a desperate, passionless mission to conceive a child, funerals be damned. And Phillip (Adam Driver) is an inept man-child, who decides to announce mid-shiva that he is engaged to his (much older) shrink.

The matriarch of the family is Hillary (Jane Fonda), a surgically-enhanced therapist who has managed to scrounge up some fame thanks to her best-selling parenting book. Hillary’s celebrity seems a bit undeserved, though, considering that her own progeny have about as much impulse control as a bunch of unruly baboons. The Altmans scream at each other, scream at other people, punch each other, and punch other people. They have multiple affairs between them, and Judd comes mighty close to committing adultery with an extended family member. Also, an Altman toddler throws poop. I won’t spoil all the details, but let’s just say that by the end of the film, things have basically devolved into a Jerry Springer sideshow.

In an essay on mic.com, Noah Gittel points out that while promotional materials for This Is Where I Leave You completely erase any reference to the characters’ Judaism, the film is one of few mainstream movies to depict an element of Jewish religious practice. We can be thankful for that, I suppose. But for the most part, This Is Where I Leave You treats religion as an inconvenience or a joke. The Altman siblings are just a little too quick to ask if they can sit shiva for three days instead of seven. In a mindlessly funny scene, Judd and his brothers get baked at synagogue during morning services, much to the dismay of the local rabbi. Rabbi Grodner himself (played, a little gratingly, by Ben Schwartz) is a running punch line; he delivers his sermons as though he’s a DJ (“Can I get a Shabbat Shalom?!”) and gets mad when the Altman brothers, for reasons that remain unclear, call him “Boner.”

All of this buffoonery would be fine if This Is Where A Leave You didn’t try to be anything more than what it is: another derivative comedy about yet another dysfunctional family. But the film insists on saddling its dumb humor with watery attempts at sincerity. By the end of the movie, we’re supposed to understand that the function of the shiva narrative is to thrust Altmans together, to force them to overcome their petty grievances and begin to understand one another. But when every genuine moment in the movie is punctured by a joke about Hillary’s mountainous implants, it’s hard to care about what happens to this band of adult-babies. If This is Where I Leave You doesn’t take its characters seriously, why should we?

(Image: Warner Bros.)