Movie Review: “This Is Where I Leave You”

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Corey Stoll, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton
Shawn Levy

Shawn Levy wants a do-over. The man who carved out a very successful career as a director that, as the Onion A/V Club once joked, you didn’t know you hated, now wants people to take him seriously. Levy actually turned some heads with the underrated “Real Steel” (his best movie by a country mile), but then followed that with last year’s “The Internship” (you had already forgotten about that one, didn’t you?), and in two months, he unleashes a third “Night at the Museum” film upon a public that thought two “Night at the Museum” films was more than enough, thank you. He’s typecast, and he doesn’t like it one bit. In other words, he now knows how it feels to be nearly every actor or actress who’s ever appeared in one of his films.

Levy’s latest attempt to rebrand himself is “This Is Where I Leave You,” a dysfunctional family dramedy that is filled with rapid-fire jokes (funny ones, too) and boasts a pitch-perfect cast. The biggest problem with the movie, sadly, is Levy himself. He seems out of his depth, and derails the momentum at odd times, lingering too long on a shot here and overdoing the camera work there. A director more experienced with the genre would have fared only marginally better, yes, but Levy had a chance to prove himself here, and he comes up short.

Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is not having a good year. Not long after walking in on his wife cheating on him with his boss (Dax Shepard), his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls to inform him that their father has died. The family isn’t close – their mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) aired the kids’ dirty laundry in the form of a best-selling novel – so the news that their father’s dying wish was for the family to sit Shiva, keeping all four siblings and their significant others in the same house for seven days, is not warmly received. In those seven days, hearts mend, hearts are broken, sibling rivalries both real and imagined rear their ugly heads, and Hilary talks way too openly about, well, everything.

Quick common sense rant: if you’re having an affair with the wife of one of your subordinates, and you’re a serial bachelor – or, on the other end, if you’re having an affair with your husband’s boss, and the boss is a serial bachelor – why would you ever have sex at the one place where you’re most likely to get caught? Smart people acting dumb for the sake of the plot; it has been scientifically proven to shorten the lives of film critics.

Stories like “This Is Where I Leave You” probably make for an interesting book every time, but making them into a movie is a different beast altogether. There is probably an entire chapter dedicated to the back story of Wendy and Horry Callen (Timothy Olyphant), the neighbor across the street that she loved but left behind. Here, we get an awkward pause when Wendy comes home and is met at the door by Horry. The scene could have ended 10 seconds sooner and we still would have known that they were once a thing, but just to be sure, Levy sticks around until it becomes awkward. He’s staged some amazing technical feats in his career, but human interaction remains a mystery.

Luckily for him, the cast bails him out on more than one occasion. The four siblings have fantastic chemistry – Adam Driver is getting all of the hype as the irresponsible little brother Phillip, and while he’s entertaining, Corey Stoll is the one who should be getting the love as the uber-responsible first-born Paul – and the three supporting female characters are top-notch (Rose Byrne, Connie Britton, and Kathryn Hahn, take a bow). And then it hits you: the movie seems entertaining because of the wealth of talent in it and their inherent ability to make anything seem funny, but the fact of the matter is that everyone here is slumming, and they didn’t realize it until it was too late to back out. If I were a betting man, I’d say that the point of no return took place while they were shooting the inevitable fight scene that takes place in the third act.

“This Is Where I Leave You” was likely going to be mediocre no matter who directed it, but putting it in the hands of a guy who has never directed a movie of this type did not help matters. It just doesn’t have the emotional heft that it thinks it has, since the hearts that are broken were already broken in the first place, just in a different way. Good for Levy for going outside of his comfort zone, but as much as he may dislike being typecast as a director, he should keep that ‘mindless family movie’ door open as long as he possibly can.