Thursday, December 25, 2014

A SHALLOW, STUPID SITCOM SHIVA: a review of "This Is Where I Leave You"

Screenplay Written by Jonathan Tropper based upon his novel
Directed by Shawn Levy
* (one star)

Near the end of the abominable "This Is Where I Leave You," Director Shawn Levy's completely tone deaf and painfully idiotic adaptation of the Jonathan Tropper novel, one character proclaims that he is ready to face a life that is "unpredictable, irrational and complicated." What a shame that he was anchored by an albatross of a movie that was not only exceedingly irrational, it was also pathetically predictable in its force-fed, hyperbolic complications.

Dear readers, the dysfunctional family film is indeed a tricky beast to pull off successfully as this cinematic sub-genre can too often find itself drowning in a sea of contrivances and overstuffed narratives at the complete expense of just allowing the characters and situations to unfold and resonate naturally, thus allowing audiences to relate accordingly. For my tastes and sensibilities, movies like Director Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" (1980), Director Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale" (2005), Director Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" (2007) and this year's "The Skeleton Twins" from Director Craig Johnson are often so few and far between.

Typically, we are given the likes of Director Jodie Foster's "Home For The Holidays" (1995), Director Thomas Bezucha's even more odious "The Family Stone" (2005)"and even Directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris' irritating "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006), where the characters are too often defined by their self-consciously quirky eccentricities and not at all by any stitches of their humanity. This trait often makes films of that nature fall apart in a cacophony of screaming fests, kitchen food fights, relentless revelations and discoveries and oceans of tears all signifying absolutely nothing approaching any real family that you have ever known or are even a part of. "This Is Where I Leave You" is a prime example of every single thing that is completely wrong with a dysfunctional family film as it feels to be a movie made by a checklist rather than any perceptive insights into how a family works, lives, breathes and operates, falls apart yet miraculously remains together. And therefore, we have one of the very worst films I have seen in 2014.

The packed to the gills plot of "This Is Where I Leave You" is centered around Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a radio producer for a shock jock DJ (played by Dax Shepard), who returns home one afternoon to find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) having sex with said shock jock DJ.  Judd soon moves out of his home and is eventually contacted by his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) who informs him that their Father has just passed away, prompting Judd to return to his small town home for the funeral.

Arriving to his family home, Judd is re-antiquated to the mammoth lunacy of his family as presided over by the Altman matriarch, Hilary Altman (Jane Fonda), a famous (and infamously oversexed and over-sharing) psychotherapist and author who has exploited the intimacies and intricacies of her family for her legendary book. The aforementioned Wendy is left behind at the Altman home, along with her toddler who has a habit of defecating in his potty seat absolutely anywhere in the Altman home, by her workaholic husband, which leaves her to possibly rekindle the flames of her one true love Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who lives across the street from the Altmans and has remained in the town due to a brain injury.

We meet Judd's oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll), the responsible one, who oversees the family's athletic store business but is dealing with issues of infertility with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who was also once Judd's girlfriend. The family "black sheep" is Phillip (Adam Driver), a philanderer now involved with Tracey Sullivan (Connie Britton), an older woman who was also once Phillip's therapist.  PHEW!!!!

After the funeral, Hilary informs her children that it was their Father's dying wish that the family remain in the Altman home and sit shiva for the full seven days, despite the fact that Hilary is not Jewish and their Father was an atheist. So forced together for the span of one week, the Altman family not only come to terms with the passing of their beloved Patriarch but also with each other and perhaps, even long simmering emotions can be renewed between Judd and his old high school crush, the ice skating Penny Moore (Rose Byrne).

With that amount of a plot description (and trust me, that is not even everything that comes to light in this film), "This Is Where I Leave You" stuffs so much narrative into itself that it feels like the entirety of "All My Children" crammed into 1 hour and 45 minutes! Now dear readers, to be fair, I have not read the novel from which this film is based, so I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this material works better on the page. Even so, I cannot help but to wonder that despite Tropper fashioning his own adaptive screenplay, this material just cannot work as a feature film at all. Or at least a feature film that was directed by the consistently and disastrously unsubtle hand of Shawn Levy, who has unleashed his specialized brand of Times Square on New Year's Eve level crowded motion picture dreck like his remake of "Cheaper By The Dozen" (2003) and its 2005 sequel, his remake of "The Pink Panther" (2006), the truly horrific "Date Night" (2010) and for the love of Pete, his "Night At The Museum" trilogy (2006/209/2014).  "This Is Where I Leave You" is especially preposterous compared to his past films as this time, he is actually trying to attempt a piece that contains a more serious core and potential sense of truth and familial solidarity but shatteringly, the film is an absolute steaming mess.

The longer I watched "This Is Where I Leave You," I was constantly reminded of other, better films that depicted that serious core and potential sense of truth that I am certain Levy was aiming for but missed by 2000 miles. I'm thinking of films like Director Ron Howard's classic "Parenthood" (1989) or even Director Jeremiah S. Chechik and Writer/Producer John Hughes' "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989), which has now become a holiday staple. Even better are films like Director Jonathan Demme's extraordinary "Rachel Getting Married" (2008) or both of Writer/Director Wes Anderson's features "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) and "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007). 

Unlike those films, over, over, and over again, "This Is Where I Leave You" makes the cardinal sin that so many of these dysfunctional family films happen to make: It seems to know absolutely nothing about what families are and how they work and just populates itself with a bunch of actors who not only don't seem to be siblings for even one moment, they all seem to be the same age! Levy, just not knowing what to do with them, feels that if these people just keep shouting louder, talking faster and allow themselves to be shuffled from room to room and in and out of scenes with no rhyme or reason whatsoever, this can approximate the chaotic feeling of a family wrapped together after a lengthy spell apart and all ensconced within some variations of grief to boot. Issues are brought up and dropped or remain tortuously unexplained, which makes for an awful lot of wheel spinning for a film that claims to have as many stories to tell as it introduces. For instance, let's take the neighbor Horry and his brain injury. What actually is his injury and issues in the first place as he is able to speak, to function, and even hold down a steady job at the Altman's sporting goods store? What exactly happened to him to obtain his injury? The film never condescends to answer even those questions to any degree that is comedic, dramatic or remotely satisfying.

Barely any of the film's characters ever feel to exist as real human beings as they are all a collection of "types" who are solely defined by their eccentricities as dictated by the situations the plot shoe-horns them into. Since none of the characters felt to be real, the situations felt even less so which makes "This Is Where I Leave You" a film of plastic people trapped inside plastic circumstances in a plastic story that is screaming for some realism, some honesty, something, anything that any person watching the film could possibly relate to. There is nothing on display that suggests that Levy was remotely concerned with how real people behave and feels as if he just wanted situations that were self-consciously comedic or quirky enough to obtain some sort of laughter. Trust me, he failed because every moment feels to be so false.

I could not believe for even one minute any of the church service sequences and interactions between the Altman family and the young Rabbi Charles Grodner (played by Ben Schwartz), a character who is somehow still saddled by his unfortunate childhood nickname "Boner." It just made for a film that not only knew nothing about how families work and operate but even church services and mostly, how relationships are altered once childhood friends and acquaintances age and how what once was home either changes or remains steadfast. Films like Director Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" (1983)Director George Armitage's "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) and Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's criminally undervalued "Elizabethtown" (2005) handled the concepts of families, prodigal characters returning to former homesteads and even death and funerals in exceedingly more truthful fashions than any one moment contained in "This Is Where I Leave You."

Even worse, this is a film where arguments and revelations come steamrolling at you in nearly EVERY scene and in a complete cavalcade as if Levy did not believe in his material enough to trust that any inherent comedy or drama would live, breathe and arrive naturally. Nope! He had to sledgehammer every single moment from beginning to end and race it along as if the audience would get bored by something approaching, oh, I don't know...any realism. The overall mechanics, as presented in this film, are only of the most contrived and shallow sitcom variety, all the way down to why the family is actually even spending a week together in the house in the first place, which makes you even question the existence of this film at all.

All of that being said, Jason Bateman is truly a King. Try at he might, it often felt as if he was acting in a completely different movie as he clearly was trying his damnedest to find the real soul within Judd Altman and anchor down the madness that swirled around him, much as he performed masterfully in the brilliant "Arrested Development" television series, which incidentally is much more knowledgeable about the mechanics of families despite the insanity of the situations. And also, I did like Adam Driver quite a bit as he did carry a certain strong screen presence that really did make an impression and nearly transcended the thanklessness and cliched aspects of his character. But again Tina Fey is wasted in yet another film role that is so clearly beneath her tremendous skills and if I could I would have to insist that she never appear in any film in which she did not write herself.

I think I have said all that really needs to be said about "This Is Where I Leave You," a film that is as hackneyed as it is flat out stupid and for all of the crying that occurs throughout the film, not even one single solitary tear was earned.

Shawn Levy's "This Is Where I Leave You" is frankly a movie that should be left in the cinematic refuge pile. You have been warned.

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