Sunday, September 21, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You (*1/2)

Directed by Shawn Levy


They say authors shouldn't adapt their own novels. The connection to the story is too strong, and the author will feel too loyal towards things that work very well in one medium, and not very much in another. In the case of Jonathan Tropper's script of This is How I Leave You - based on his own novel of the same name - one would hope that it isn't exactly representative. I haven't read the novel, but I would hope that it has more nuance and charm than the film it eventually became or else I'd have a much lower opinion of the book-reading public that would make something like that a best-seller. It's the story of the Altmans, a family comprising of four adult children suffering through various but equal levels of distress, as well as a spotlight-hogging, pseudo-psychological mother with an addiction for breast augmentation, and a dead patriarch. It's rich soil for drama, but director Shawn Levy (known for the Night at the Museum films and last year's The Internship) chooses instead to brush the films with several strokes of broad comedy and takes a talented cast of actors and directs them all as if they're each starring in a completely different movie. It's the first R-rated film that Levy's ever directed, but it doesn't seem like he yet knows the difference between a film for adults and a flaccid movie with the word 'fuck' in it. It's an adult movie that the whole family can enjoy!

Films about dysfunctional families have a soft spot in my heart. They play to universal truths and manipulate me in my most sensitive areas. This is Where I Leave You is instead a dysfunctional film that's supposed to be about family, but doesn't care much about anyone in that family - or at least only cares enough to make sure that they nail the punchline. The film is an ensemble piece, but it's moral center is Judd (Jason Bateman), a successful radio show producer living in Manhattan with his beautiful wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer). The show he works for is a controversial, borderline reprehensible bro-heavy screed hosted by the narcissistic Wade (Dax Sheppard). When Judd leaves work early to surprise Quinn on her birthday, he finds her and Wade having a particularly rowdy round of sex in his bed. He's not given much time to really grieve the end of his marriage, because days afterward he gets a call from his sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), telling him that their father has finally died after prolonged illness. Judd is forced to quit his moping and hike out into the suburbs for the funeral.

Judd's siblings all arrive as well, including Wendy, her two kids and her work-obsessed, phone-addicted automaton of a husband. There's his older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn), who are in the midst of a stressful sex schedule in the hopes of having a baby. The youngest sibling, Phillip (Adam Driver), arrives in the middle of the funeral service in a sports car blaring loud music and immediately establishing his place as the obnoxious screw-up of the family. They all arrive to console their widowed mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), who herself is a celebrity therapist with a best-selling child psychology book on her resume. The information that she mined from her children in order to write this book leaves all four of her children feeling different forms of resentment. Once the funeral is over, Hillary explains to her children that it was their father's dying wish that they all sit shiva, meaning they must all stay under her roof for seven days. None of the children seem particularly happy about the development, particularly Judd who finds out that his old bedroom is taken and that he has to sleep in the basement on a fold out mattress that doesn't even fold out all the way because the room is too small.

In town, Judd runs into Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), an old high school friend who chose to stay in their hometown. Penny is an eccentric, boisterous woman who does a poor job hiding her feelings for Judd and an even poorer job hiding the subsequent excitement at the destruction of his marriage. As Judd debates paying Quinn's infidelity back with an infidelity of his own with Penny, Wendy debates her own true feelings for her dirtbag husband, especially around the presence of Horry (Timothy Olyphant), her former high school love who know lives hampered by a brain injury. Horry and his mother Linda (Debra Monk) are family friends who live across the street - and Linda has her own surprises later in the film. Meanwhile, Paul becomes combative with Phillip often over a number of subjects including how to run their father's sporting goods store and the fact that Paul's wife Alice was originally in love with Judd. Add to the mix the arrival of Philip's new, much older girlfriend, Tracy (Connie Britton), and the tensions quickly grow high between the Altmans. Tracy is a therapist like Hillary, creating the obvious comparisons and oedipal remarks. It's no wonder this family never seems to really get along, they appear to be a biological marvel, physically and emotionally.

There are individual moments and lines in this film that really work, and of this rather large cast there isn't really even a single performance that is particularly bad. Jason Bateman is probably the greatest straight man that we have right now in American movies, and the situation that Judd Altman finds himself in - surrounded by crazy, self-destructive family - is not dissimilar from Bateman's most famous character, Michael Bluth in Arrested Development. But Arrested Development was supposed to be broad, and one of many things that made that show genius was its understanding of what worked best for its characters and its cast. This Is Where I Leave You understands neither of those things. Judd Altman's situation is so despairing, and gives the film a real opportunity to tackle complex issues regarding marriage and self-worth, but instead Levy depends on the easiest joke available and puts a pin in the film's chance at substance. Of course, the low brow humor would be fine if the movie itself didn't want to be so earnest. For every joke there is about Hillary's fake boobs (and there are MANY), there is a scene of someone solemnly confronting their past or crying. The film's schizophrenic tone is reeled in by the sophomoric aspects of the script; ie, Levy and Tropper are literally dumbing down the story for you.

The film's misuse of its female performers feels particularly egregious. Levy had directed Fey before in the equally terrible Date Night (which was a movie so baffling since it starred both Fey and Steve Carrell, and yet had such a hard time being funny), but gives her what is probably the darkest role of the comedienne's career. Fey is game for the part, unafraid of the character's less desirable details, but this is not a role in which she can flourish, filled with bitterness and guilt. To be fair, Levy allows Fey to break loose here and there with several one-liners, but by that point it feels out of character and forces the issue. The very idea that a woman as beautiful as Rose Byrne would never leave home and essentially sit around and wait for the sad sack Jason Bateman seemed absolutely preposterous, not to mention why a supposedly intelligent woman like Tracy would fall for the disastrous Phillip. But that's saying nothing compared to the film's greatest sin, which consisted of taking the legendary Jane Fonda and giving her a part in which she has close to nothing to do and making her a receptacle for tit jokes. Fonda gives the character an unwritten dose of myopia giving Hillary the only complexity that Shawn Levy allowed the audience to see. But that's the whole movie as well: filled with good roles for these actors, but then taking their legs out from underneath them.

This Is Where I Leave You is my least favorite kind of movie: filled with the assets to tell a really compelling story, but only interested in the parts that will make teenagers laugh. There are Judd Apatow films that have higher levels of maturity. It's hard to throw all the blame at Levy's feet, since Tropper was the one who wrote the script and thus sullied the reputation of his own book. I can see this film being a hit, based on the cast alone, but one really ponders the thought: why not just cut out the four-letter words and make this PG-13? That's the audience that this film is made for. For whatever the intention, the film's solutions to its myriad of problems are lazy and simply unbelievable, and it leads to the movie's final twist which not only comes out of nowhere but frankly adds not a single piece of enlightenment to the story that proceeded it. There's a motif throughout the film about Judd Altman hating complexity and that he "doesn't do complicated". Well, neither does This Is Where I Leave You. It prefers to comfort with weed and boob jokes than have its audience face the dark realities that these characters face. Also, there's a running joke involving Wendy's toddler son who runs around from scene to scene plopping down his small plastic training toilet and taking craps right in front of everybody. What a metaphor.

No comments: