American dramedies about well-off families coming together to sort out their differences are not exactly rarities, but here is a pretty decent one from journeyman director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel). It was written by Jonathan Tropper, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel of the same name: This is Where I Leave You.
Our protagonist is Judd (Jason Bateman), a likable guy whose life is torn apart by two developments at the very beginning of the film. First, he comes home – birthday cake in hand – to find his wife sleeping with his boss. Then his father dies. After the funeral, Judd and his three siblings are forced by their mother (Jane Fonda) to sit Shiva – a Jewish seven-day period of mourning. This was their father’s last wish, so the family begrudgingly decide to honour it. Cue all sorts of relationship dramas. Conveniently, all the main characters have unfinished business in their hometown, in one way or another, and the script takes its time to elucidate them all.
Judd’s siblings Wendy, Phillip and Paul (Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll, respectively) are divided a little too simplistically into the categories of nostalgic mum, immature layabout and hard-nosed bore, but the performances often raise them beyond the script’s rather blunt categorisations. Indeed, this is a recurring theme in This is Where I Leave You: occasionally mediocre material lifted by committed players.
Levy and his actors deserve credit for that. The film veers dangerously close to schmaltz on a number of occasions (not helped by a far too on-the-nose score), but most of these are saved by good performances, especially from Bateman and Driver, whose character at least partially sheds his generic qualities. Bateman in particular has the shifts in tone down pat – something the film can’t always claim. There are some funny bits in here, and some moments of real emotion, but the film fails to really find a consistent level of either comedy or drama. For instance, Paul’s marriage-threatening battle to conceive with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) is given roughly as much screen time as a pooping toddler, and about as much attention in the script as the gargantuan pair of fake breasts the siblings’ mother is newly sporting.
There are contrivances, too. Rose Byrne’s Penny (Judd’s childhood sweetheart), for instance, is positioned a tad too neatly in proceedings, and the conclusion of their rather bolted-on rom com subplot, given what has gone before, is a little baffling, although as with so many other aspects of the script, the frothiness is given a shot of flavour by the committed and likable performances. Timothy Olyphant, meanwhile, is given the most thinly drawn role as a local hunk stricken by an unexplained brain injury. Connie Britton, as Phillip’s older girlfriend, fares much better, bringing refined dignity to a small part.
Despite it all, I rather liked the film. Bateman is the anchor, and he’s a reliab le one. There are moments when it’s far too sugary for its own good, and the script can’t quite find the right amount of laughs or tears, but for all that it still made me smile.