Yesterday Dustin made a roundup of The Ten Worst Movies With the Best Ensemble Casts, and there was some question as to whether This Is Where I Leave You could end up on that list. The cast of this movie is, after all, spectacular. I mean honestly, just look at this cast.
Surely a group like that can do enough heavy lifting to make up for any lazy, generalized schmaltz they’re up against, right? RIGHT? Well, yes. I’m happy to say that This Is Where I Leave You would by no means end up on a Worst Movie list. If there were, however, a Ten Most Forgettable Movies or Ten Least Anything Movies With the Best Ensemble Casts list, this would be— not at the top, maybe right in the middle of it.
The movie centers on Judd (Jason Bateman), who walks in on his wife (Abigail Spencer) boning his boss (Dax Shepard, as an obnoxious bro-ish radio show host), before immediately being being called home to sit shiva after his father’s death. So the premise is simple: he’s forced to spend seven days in his childhood home with his mother’s (Jane Fonda) new boob job (seemingly her most prominent character trait), and his siblings, who are mildly estranged not because of any sort of falling out, but more because of general apathy. In addition to sad Judd, who just wants a simple life with a non-cheating wife (cue character exposition from the trailer: “You don’t do complicated, Judd”), there’s the uptight older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), who’s married to, and trying unsuccessfully to impregnate, Judd’s high school girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn). And there’s the younger-brother-immature-bad-boy Phillip (Adam Driver), who’s brought along his older therapist-turned-girlfriend (Connie Britton). And finally there’s Wendy (Tina Fey), who’s married to a workaholic doucheaholic with two kids, but still carrying a torch for her first love, Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who suffered a “brain injury” decades ago and still lives next door.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on there it’s because THERE IS A LOT GOING ON THERE. That’s a lot of characters, with a lot of issues to resolve, all with a running time of under two hours (thankfully so — we likely would not be so forgiving with a longer movie). Because of that, things get a bit clunky. A large portion of the movie takes place right in the center of Exposition City. (No time for nuance! We’ve got feelings and intentions to monologue!) Some characters definitely get the short end of the development stick (sorry, Corey Stoll) and they clearly had NO idea what to do with Rose Byrne. Her entire character description may have read “Female. Townie hair.” Same goes for Olyphant, whose “brain injury” (may as well be his catch phrase) is often reduced to big, dopey eyes and a pleasant grin.
Given the mountain of material and limited time, director/producer Shawn Levy seems to have attempted a character development shortcut: he didn’t exactly cast actors so much as he filled the movie with already known and loved characters. We’ve got Bateman basically playing Michael Bluth and Adam Driver playing that one role he does so well. Ben Schwartz’s Jean Ralphio is there, only slightly mellowed out since he’s a rabbi now. Tina Fey actually manages to show a new side of herself, and even though there’s a bit of Liz Lemon (it’s actually more Awards Show Host Tina Fey), this was a nice step in a whole new Super Serious Actor direction that she’s now proven she’s very well suited for. Everyone feels familiar, but also feels fairly flat, as often happens when we’re given copies of copies. The only person who really injects any life into his role is Adam Driver. Even though he’s essentially playing the same character we’ve seen in Girls and What If (I’m looking forward to his hypersexualized man-child Sith portrayal), he at least has a focus and energy that is painfully lacking from everyone else. Well, almost everyone else. Driver does have some competition for Best Part of This Movie in Wendy’s potty training son, who carries a portable plastic potty around with him like a security blanket, and has a love of pooping on the front porch, watching the sun rise. That kid is a national treasure, and we should all take a lesson from him.
Ultimately, the film can never get out from under the burden of too many characters. But then, it never actually feels like it tries to. It seems perfectly content to put a dozen beloved actors in a room, and watch them be themselves for a couple of hours. It’s a shame, because while the movie is not terrible, it does feel like it could be more. The source material (the novel by Jonathan Tropper, who also wrote the screenplay) has been hailed as being more, as being complex and engaging. This movie? Complex is not a word you would ever use to describe it. Charming, maybe. Serviceable. Fun. Maybe “heartwarming,” if you’re going through a breakup or it’s around the holidays and you’re feeling particularly emotionally susceptible. In those cases, you may find yourself wanting a rewatch, and you’ll probably want to file this under “guilty pleasures.” More than likely, though, you’ll forget this movie ever existed.