Every so often, some movie with a big ensemble cast of B- and C-list performers helmed by a lesser director comes out. With the exception of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011), they’re almost all a monument to mediocrity, dull and forgettable. Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You — from its unremarkable, bland title to its cast and its complete inability to say anything worthwhile — fits into this mold quite firmly.
I’ve liked Levy’s work exactly once, in Real Steel (2011), a movie about robots punching one another. Here, instead of fighting robots, we get a lot a whole slew of actors demonstrating why they’ve never quite been able to carry a movie by themselves. And while Levy’s direction is perfectly adequate, the script he’s shooting from isn’t. From the screenplay by Jonathan Tropper based on his novel of the same name, my dislike of This Is Where I Leave You has as much to do with the script as it does Levy’s uneventful direction of the flaccid cast. While I’m not familiar with Tropper’s work, he seems to be ailed by the same affliction that’s hindered so much American writing. He wants desperately to say something, anything, about the modern American condition — something that translates into the vague sadness of white middle-class city-dwellers coming to grips with their suburban upbringings. Here, this is seen through Jason Bateman’s Judd, a man whose wife is cheating on him and whose father has just passed, the latter of which forces him to head to his hometown and spend a week with his shrill, often obnoxious dysfunctional family.
Levy and Tropper have nothing really to say about how these people live. While sadness, heartbreak and mourning are natural human emotions everyone can relate to, the film turns them into the jokey, the quirky or the mundane. The rest of the film’s inner workings don’t help things much. Tropper has this tendency toward heavy-handed plotting, where every little tidbit or overlong conversation between characters becomes a literal Chekhov’s gun that comes back around to seem clever or profound (as someone paying off student loans for his creative writing degree, I can tell Tropper’s got an MFA and teaches writing). Instead, once you catch onto the ham-fisted way in which the film’s being rolled out, every minute becomes totally predictable, making an already lengthy film all the more drawn-out.
Then there’s that cast, which — at their best — never grow beyond simply adequate. Jason Bateman’s firmly entrenched in full-on smart-assed Bateman mode, while Timothy Olyphant is so horribly miscast that I thought he was Taylor Kitsch for half the movie. The most unfortunate turn is Tina Fey, who — if she knows what’s good for her — needs to stay far, far away from dramatic roles. She keeps getting handed all of these deep emotional scenes that she simply can’t carry. She can’t even get the tear ducts going. The only member who comes across as vaguely impressive is Adam Driver (Frances Ha), and this is for giving the film its only half-second of genuine emotion in a film filled to the rafters with detached, mawkish and insincere sentiment. Rated R for language, sexual content and some drug use.