Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I See You Shiva With Anticipation

Year: 2014
Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

There are three types of indie movies. 1) Films which showcase a brilliant artist who is given short shrift in Hollywood for no good reason. 2) Films which showcase a dreadful artist who is given short shrift in Hollywood for a very good reason. And 3) Films that attempt to be indie and meaningful because they know that's cool now, but they're directed by the guy who did Real Steel and Cheaper by the Dozen.

Guess which category This Is Where I Leave You falls under. 

Now I'm not saying that director Shawn Levy is a terrible artist. No way no how. I'm just saying that his pedigree (which also includes The Internship and all three Night at the Museum films) in no way prepares him to treat this film's material with the delicacy that its demanding tonal shifts deserve. It would take a lot of skill to finesse the low key dramedy of Jonathan Tropper's source novel into even mildly diverting cinema, and Levy just doesn't have the practice.

Well, I guess Ben Stiller and his museum buddies are KIND of like a dysfunctional Jewish family.

This Is Where I Leave You tells the story of the Altman family, which is brought together by the death of a patriarch. His last wish was his wife and kids to sit shiva, forcing them to remain in proximity with one another for the first time in years. 

The most important member of this family (in terms of screen time, not interest) is Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a bitter man who just discovered that his wife was cheating on him with his boss. This causes some super indie problems for him, because he has exactly followed his plan for how his life should be, but it isn't bringing him happiness. A chance encounter with Penny (Rose Byrne), an old flame, reminds him that sometimes love can be messy, especially if you're in a movie that premiered at TIFF.

The rest of his family includes Wendy (Tina Fey), who has a kid and is married to a neglectful businessman despite the fact that she's in love with a brain-damaged neighbor inexplicably named Horry (Timothy Olyphant); Paul (Corey Stoll), who is a straight-laced square failing to have a baby with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn); Phillip (Adam Driver), who is the baby of the family, a hopeless lothario, and a perennial screwup who somehow convinced a beautiful psychiatrist named Tracy (Connie Britton) to fall in love with him; and their mother Hillary (Jane Fonda), who just got a boob job. 

Yay! Isn't it gross when old people show interest in sex? Judd certainly seems to think so, according to the immense amount of screentime spent on him staring at his mother's chest in revulsion.

Them old broads be crazy, amirite?

It's certainly exciting to see a depiction of the interactions and customs of a Jewish family in the modern, secular world. But it would be more exciting if most of them were actually Jewish or gave half a flying Pop-Tart about the implications of their minority faith on the subtext. 

There's a smattering of funny, charming moments, largely thanks to the abundance of funny, charming actors. And the drama is handily handled (to coin a nifty phrase), especially by Fey and Bateman, who have the heaviest of burdens on their shoulders. But despite the best efforts of the cast (all of whom are genuinely enjoyable save for Driver's perplexing emphasis on shouting his lines and Byrne's hard swallowing of her natural Australian accent), This Is Where I Leave You falls flat as a pancake.

In all fairness to Rose Byrne, who I love, her character is so indie vanilla that I can't imagine what else there would be to do other than babble lines in half-cocked American. You gotta make things enjoyable for yourself.

The biggest problem with the film is that it has no idea what to do with its prodigious cast. The performers are all proven talents with mid-level star power just dripping off of them, but the plot only has the attention span for at most three protagonists. The sprawling number of celebrities in the background steals focus from the characters that we're supposed to care about, and the imbalanced plot threads prevent us from caring about them in the first place. It's a lose-lose situation. 

Basically, this film is what would have happened if, instead of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins had cast the entire line-up of Saturday Night Live. There are so many balls being juggled here that some of them just roll away without anybody noticing.

Characters twirl in and out of existence, vanishing from this dimension until they're needed for the next forced plot point. Several of the siblings' significant others are banished to purgatory early on, only to be trotted out on special occasions. And I'm pretty sure Connie Britton's character died of neglect, locked in an upstairs closet. The only consistent presence is a potty-training toddler, who is incidentally the most compelling of the bunch.

This isn't even a third of the cast of this tiny tiny film.

Overall, This Is Where I Leave You is just too generic to be worth the hassle. There's endless heavy-handed exposition laced conversations, routine characterizations, and nothing new to say about the state of the American family. Been there, done that. There is one great sequence where the siblings repeat a series of cordial platitudes to guests at a funeral that highlights the repetitive dullness and constant lying that these types of polite gatherings require.

But beyond that, the film doesn't attempt to do anything more than exist as a piece of disposable cinema. Miss this film, and don't bother calling it on its birthday.

TL;DR: This Is Where I Leave You is dull and generic, but has a decently sized slate of charming actors.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1005

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