Johnathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You was the kind of book you wish more people wrote: funny and dry, sad and easy to read, somehow deep while not overwrought at all. With a bevy of juicy characters for all ages and sexes, it was bound to get scooped up and made into a movie. It could have been a movie that was the kind you wish more people made: funny and dry, sad and easy to watch, somehow deep while not overwrought at all.
So, here we are, just as award bait season starts and that movie (or at least the idea of that movie) is here, and well, WHAT A CAST. Lets just roll these names out there, to get that bit out of the way: Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman, Adam Driver, Connie Britton, Corey Stoll, Rose Byrne, Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant. Can you even imagine a better group of people to just hang out with on the big screen? This, naturally, is a trick question, because, likability wise-all that is missing is maybe a Murray/Martin/Wiig/Hader combo pack and we’d move in with this group and let them have their way with us, no questions asked.
Which is why it is a damn shame the movie never QUITE comes together.
The story is simple enough. The Altman kids are forced to sit shiva with their Mother since it was apparently their (mostly atheist) Father’s dying wish, and we are invited to visit with the family. And much like with most seemingly simple stories, the execution is all about nuance. It is the nuance that gives it depth, nuance that makes this be about THIS family and not just any other one.
No one in the group is doing particularly well, and not in a nuanced way; it’s more like a crash-and-burn-and-spectacularly-flame-out kind of way. Wendy (Fey) is married to a non-sympathetic jerk and still in love with her high school sweetheart (Olyphant, with a head injury). Judd (Bateman) is reeling from discovering his wife fucking his boss (a perfectly frosted tipped Dax Shephard as a shock jock prototype). Paul (Stoll) is trying to impregnate his wife (Hahn) who is hormonal, sad, and everything that goes with it. Philip (Driver) is a ne’er do well currently shacking up with a rich, gorgeous, much older woman who just happens to also be his therapist (Britton). And Mom (Fonda) just lost her husband and things are not looking that well in terms of the kids being there for her or themselves in their time of need.
Now, this is a lot characters and A LOT of of issues. While the book managed to still put things into context, no matter how loose and breezy (and sometimes off-color) that context was, the movie’s main issue is that it fails to fully engage the audience in the lives of all these people in the time we’re given with them. Every person on the screen is a person you want to see more of and every person on the screen deserves their own movie. The best ensemble casts play well together and the chemistry on screen here works with no one jumping out to steal anyone’s thunder in particular (though Fey and Driver shine a little harder than the rest), but you just want MORE. More drama, more humor, more character development, more heartbreak, more everything. And while Tropper wrote the screenplay based on his book, so many details (a lot of them vulgar, messy, necessary) are left out and the whole final product just feels a little too toned down and buttoned up for the minivan majority that the producers (and director Shawn Levy of Night and the Museum and Date Night record) seem to court.
Which is a damn shame, because this really could have been a contender. And what we ended up with is while not necessarily unpleasant or unenjoyable, still just a middling movie that will do OK in the movie theatres, and then probably be played around the holidays on TBD ad nauseum for years to come (e.g. The Family Stone).
My suggestion? Assemble the same cast, hire someone like Lynn Shelton to direct this, give it some breathing room for these people (and characters) to show us what they’ve got, and make it into a HBO Special Event mini-series. Trust me on this one, you guys. In the meantime, go read the book. It will take maybe a few hours more than the movie watching, but will pay back in dividends.