The cast of this movie is kind of unreal. Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Timothy Olyphant, Rose Byrne, Connie Britton, Ben Schwartz… I dearly love the work that these actors have done, and I generally follow them into whatever movie or television worlds they choose to inhabit. Seeing This Is Where I Leave You was a no-brainer for me.
My reaction to it, however, is more complicated. I liked the parts, but not the sum of them. The whole of this layered family story felt incomplete, rushed, unsatisfying. It’s a bummer to write that down, too.
I wanted to love this movie. I wanted to believe that some of my favorite actors were Jew-ish (emphasis on the ish) siblings sitting shiva for their father’s death. But I just couldn’t do it. Corey Stoll, cast as eldest brother Paul Altman, was maybe the most believable in his role. He had tense authority, major jealousy issues, and pent-up regrets abound. He also really looked like the older sibling. Bateman, though, as middle brother Judd, didn’t sell me on his my-wife-left-me story. The parts of the movie where Bateman was serious and unhappy, I bought. But the second he turned on the Bateman smile and the Bateman timing, Judd disappeared and I had to reconcile this two-sided man with an unfortunate personal life and Jason Bateman’s superb comedic talent. Judd didn’t seem like a whole person. And neither did Tina Fey’s Wendy. Fey’s humor is so well-established at this point that even though her serious scenes were powerful, I couldn’t put together her meddling-sister remarks with her witty feistiness. Wendy was two people in one body. So was Adam Driver’s Phillip, the youngest, fuck-up-iest sibling. He rolled up to his father’s funeral in a Porsche, oozing confidence. But the second he was meant to crack jokes, he turned into Adam Driver, guy who plays Adam on Girls, bumbling and pausing and losing his cockiness. Of course, maybe the two-sidedness of these characters was meant to show how people have many facets, or that being around your siblings takes you to a different mental place, but the contrasts were too stark. It seemed as if the director just said, during lighthearted scenes, “Do your thing.” Everyone’s got gold in their comedy coffers, but this wasn’t the right movie to cash in.
The same argument can also be made for Ben Schwartz’s Rabbi Grodner, whom the Altman family took to poking fun at throughout the movie. He was basically only comic relief, and was superb at it, but he was Ben Schwartz in a yarmulke. It didn’t seem like a role so much as a cameo. No rabbi could be that cool, except Ben Schwartz himself. Connie Britton as Tracy, Phillip’s older, loaded, gorgeous girlfriend was supposed to be a stretch, story-wise, but it was too much of one. Timothy Olyphant as Wendy’s ex-boyfriend still living across the street from their childhood home: dreamy and too convenient.
Considering the amount of heightened family drama that happens over the seven days, and the amount of messiness that that would entail, this movie came out very tidy. Every plot point had a specific, almost predictable purpose, every loose end was tied up, every romantic action had an equal and opposite reaction. Judd’s “Have you ever been to Maine?” non-sequitur in the middle of the movie basically telegraphed his arc for the rest of it. Wendy’s longing looks at Olyphant’s Horry showed us exactly where her marriage was headed. The fact that Judd had dated Paul’s wife (the forever-sidekicked Kathryn Hahn) when they were younger led to a scene I’m sure you could write in your head right now. Though I like that none of the characters tried desperately to get anyone to like them, I wish I had had something to latch onto besides my loyalty to the actors.
The only character, and actor for that matter, who truly surprised me in this movie was Jane Fonda. Her story felt familiar — she was like Margaret Chenowith on Six Feet Under, trading the privacy of her childrens’ childhood for a lucrative book deal — but she was so much less threatening than Margaret, so much more oversexed and lax about everything, that she ended up earning my sympathy more than anyone else. And her scenes with each of her children contained the right amount of sincerity and humor, something that cannot necessarily be said for the rest of the film.
I didn’t leave this movie completely unsatisfied; I saw a bevy of my favorite actors trying something new and making one family’s sad week into a communal, amusing, relatable experience. But I expected so much more.