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Friday, September 19, 2014

This is Where I Leave You Review: Ensemble Talent Wasted on Neutered Plot

This is Where I Leave You wants desperately to be the next Big Chill. Here's why it's not even close.
For Director Shawn Levy, life must feel pretty good. A master of producing some of the dullest comedy films in recent memory, Levy churns these out like a cow produces milk, collecting his paycheck and moving on the next low-hanging fruit. His newest submission This is Where I Leave You is more of the same, a dull, formulaic mess that never utilizes its considerable talents above a resting heartbeat.

When news reaches the Attman children that their father has passed away, the four adult siblings return to their childhood home to deal with the repercussions. Daughter Wendy (Tina Fey) is in an unsatifying marriage, while brother Phillip (Adam Driver) lives a fast life full of excuses but little success. Meanwhile, elder-brother Judd (Jason Bateman) learns that his wife is having an affair with his boss, while Brother Paul (Stahl) seems to be the only responsible one, having taken over the family business. But there's also the brain-damaged Horry (Timothy Olyphant) as well as Judd's 'girl-who-got-away' interest Penny (Rose Byrne). Their mother (Jane Fonda) - who made a fortune airing the family's dirty laundry in a tell-all - hasn't seen her children together in years but is mindful of the changes and struggles they have undergone. As the dysfunctional family converges to carry out their father's last wish, patience will be tested and lessons learned that the rock the siblings to their cores.

Levy - known for tripe like The Internship and Date Night - also made the robot rockem/sockem Real Steel; however, none of that energy or enthusiasm is apparent here. Bateman's arc feels hollow, placing him exactly where we think he'll land by film's end. In fact, everyone seems to have their places and rarely move outside of them. Fonda is always the dutiful mother, Fey the victimized daughter, and Driver the pathetic loser. There's so little character development here, making the story by Jonathan Tropper move at a snail's pace.

The constant problem with ensemble films is the lack of time we get to spend with all the players - someone's story inevitably gets lost, and in Leave we see that happen on multiple occasions (at least four that I cared to count). The idea that people of all races and economic backgrounds suffer the same relationship problems is totally acceptable, but it's Levy's suggestion that somehow rich white people suffer more makes everyone in the film seem entitled rather than worthy of our attention. Olyphant is perhaps the worst-used, a terrific actor who gets to look slow for about 10 minutes before his story is jettisoned in favor of Bateman's. I found myself wishing Horry's storyline would have taken center stage, but it's clear that Levy is shooting for a mile wide and a foot deep and not the other way around.

But Leave is far worse than its mechanics suggest, suffering from a lack of identity and utterly failing to make the plight of this rich but dysfunctional family appealing as a personal tale. Instead, we're treated to sad scenes of regret as Bateman and Fey share space on the rooftop of their parent's home, as the two (and the entire cast) remember their father while whining about their problems. I think it goes without saying that everyone (including the rich) has their share of strife, but we don't need a wishy-washy film to remind us. Other actors like Stohl and Fonda are there just to hold space when Bateman, Fey, and Byrne are off-screen. Byrne has made better films lately, but her love interest arc is paper-thin with her resolution seen a mile away. Yep, she'll pork Bateman, hate him, then return to him just in time for the ending. Blah blah blah.

This is Where I Leave You tries desperately to be the new Big Chill, but never captures that magic. DIrector Levy wastes his considerable cast on an unsatisfying mix of melodramatic hodge-podge and poorly-crafted comedic skits. It feels utterly neutered of anything edgy and frankly makes rich white folks looks like professional whiners. I'm sure someone will connect with this, as its themes of loss and regret are universal, but its filler mentality will become apparent to the majority almost as soon as lights dim.

This is Where I Leave You is rated R for for language, sexual content and some drug use and has a runtime of 103 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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