Hollywood has depicted characters busting their husbands, wives and partners in acts of bedroom infidelity so many times audiences may be forgiven for reminding themselves that they ought to care. Some movies, such as director Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You, show us such a moment early on to establish sympathy for a key character. This comes with a risk: if we’ve barely had time to get to know the person our emotional responses are likely to operate only on a base level.
In other words, if a storyteller rushes to the chase (a punchline with a flimsy setup, a dramatic reveal without a context) the moment of impact will probably be softened. This props up intermittently in Levy’s family-reconnecting dramedy, which shows plenty of situations and characters we should care about without expending much effort to establish why.
Workaholic Judd (Jason Bateman) comes home early from the office brandishing a surprise birthday cake for his wife, who turns out to have a surprise of her own: she’s doing the dirty with his meathead boss (Dax Shepard). The sad image of Judd sitting alone at the kitchen table with his adulterating wife’s birthday cake segues to a text insert displaying the film’s title.
This is not the event that springboards Levy’s central drama; the person who has left and isn’t coming back is Judd’s recently deceased father. His sister Wendy (Tina Fey) breaks the news, leading to the reassembling of his siblings — including brothers Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver) and mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) — at their family home.
Hilary informs the group that pa’s last wish was that they sit shiva, together for seven days to honour the departed. This translates to a familiar journey (recently rehashed in The Judge and Nebraska) about coming to terms with each other. The family argue, bicker, dredge up things from the past and gradually form a mutual understanding. There are occasions when the drama feels genuine; it certainly feels well-intentioned.
Levy helps the medicine go down with several ounces of sugar. There is never long between jokes, which tend to be crude and single note, riffing on the idea of “normal” people doing wacky things. The brothers get stoned in church and trigger a fire alarm. A heterosexual character becomes a lesbian seemingly for the sake of it. There is a recurring gag that draws attention to Hilary’s breast implants, as the siblings rub up against them and unwittingly soak in an eyeful.
With no second layer to the set up, or even a set up at all — the extent of the gag is that Hilary’s breasts are large and fake — Jane Fonda does her best to smile and roll with it. She’s in on the joke, of course, but can’t escape feeling like the butt (or breast) of it.
This is Where I Leave You assembles notable comedic performers (including Fonda, Bateman and Fey) and some capable ones (Stopp and Driver) for its lead roles, but they never get the chemistry quite right. The actors feel more like an ensemble than a family.
The film finds more success with a side romance involving Judd and a gentle spirit named Penny (Rose Byrne). But their relationship is so predictable, and developed with such little imagination, it feels doomed from the start, insofar as offering anything remotely new or interesting. When Cyndi Lauper’s most famous song plays to them for the second occasion (in an empty ice rink, no less) it is a reminder we have indeed seen this moment — and this movie — time after time.