This is Where I Leave You is an impossibly bad film. It parades itself as an insightful study of male inertia only with a gaudy air of self-importance. It drowns its viewer with a perpetually unspooling sense of quirk, delineating every character with a one or two word adjective that they must adhere to. There’s the boring but safe older brother and the high energy but uncommitted younger brother. There’s also the wise but manic sister, the one who can provide its lead character with all the right answers but seems incapable of getting her life in order. Throw in a brotherly pot sequence for good measure (masculine bonding can only be ignited within a cloudy smoke of hash, after all) and a manic pixie dream girl and you have This is Where I Leave You.
The film follows in the footsteps of John Wells’ recent August: Osage County, with intermingling components and nods to The Big Chill and Garden State. Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own novel, it would be fair to acknowledge that most, if not all, of the problems in the film stem from Tropper’s screenplay. The film opens with Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) discovering his cheating wife with his boss. The strain of his failed marriage is compounded by the sudden loss of his father, whereby he congregates with his grieving family for a week-long retreat. While the family - sister Wendy (Tina Fey), brothers Paul and Phillip (Adam Driver and Corey Stoll), and matriarch Hilary (Jane Fonda) - is skeptical about sharing the childhood home together again, they begrudgingly do so out of respect of their father’s dying wish. Littering the household are everyone’s spouses and children, a constant reminder to Judd about his ongoing divorce.
Whereas Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County screenplay relished in crass dysfunction, giving actors free reign of the material (and as such going batshit crazy in execution), Levy’s film aims for more of an awe-shucks approach that’s equal parts manipulative and nauseating. Everyone’s dysfunction is highlighted as a narrative touch point, effectively cultivating an unnatural environment. Nothing about the film feels real. There’s a constant sense of artificiality that courses through yet the picture incessantly presents its pathos as true and virtuous.
Fact is that a film that does this ought to suggest something that expands beyond its male perspective. Instead, what the film suggests is that the women in this film are meant to service their male character’s vision quests. Every male character - childish Paul, sterile Phillip, and dull Judd - are offered a measure of closure to their narrative arcs. Yet the women in this film either return to their emotionally neglecting husband, remain disillusioned about the idea of having a child, wait for their man to return from their journey of self-discovery, or remain at home as little more than an object. Case in point: Jane Fonda is cast as a giant pair of tits.
Bateman is an exceptional presence throughout his films. He’s often a highlight and is an incredibly subtle actor. But his projects often fail him and This is Where I Leave You follows in a long line of terrible decisions from the actor, which includes recent films like Bad Words and Identity Thief. And Tina Fey, one of the funniest women in the world, is left with livening up the thinnest material that one has to wonder if the occasional bits of humor were originally in the screenplay or were benefits of her own ad-libbing. As for everyone else: most every performer that I’m familiar with, from Corey Stoll to Adam Driver to Rose Byrne, give performances worthy of a better film. They deserve better, but more importantly, you do too.