Adult-family dramety fails to stand out

Pictured: Discomfort. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

Jason Bateman has a scraggly, patchy beard that really doesn’t work for him.

Presumably because of that, his character, Judd Altman, starts This is Where I Leave You by walking in on his wife (Abigail Spencer) doing it with his boss (Dax Shepard), as she has been for about a year. While dealing with this revelation, Altman learns that his father has died earlier than expected. The Altman family is Jewish the same way Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant, but its widowed matriarch, Hillary (Jane Fonda), insists that she and her four children sit Shiva, a Jewish tradition in which immediate family sits together for seven days in mourning. This thrusts Judd into a house with Hillary, elder brother Paul (Corey Stoll), sister Wendy (Tina Fey) and younger brother Phillip (Adam Driver). It’s funny, because Judd hasn’t told them about his divorce and they all hate each other because of Hillary ruining their childhood by publishing it in a best-selling book.

Writer Jonathan Tropper also wrote the book on which this movie is based, and it’s pretty easy to tell. This movie stinks of being adapted from a book that script writer liked too much for its own good. There are too many characters and it’s not always clear who everybody is in the scene. People arguing off-screen is an unusual motif this film features, but every time it happens, viewers will have to stop for a moment and count heads to figure out who’s arguing.

It’s the kind of plot that works well for a book, but the movie needed to be much more centrally focused on Judd and his perspectives and how his relationships with his siblings and their significant others play out and how they affect his own marriage’s turmoil. A lot about the other Altmans’ backgrounds could have been left to the audience’s imagination and been no less interesting.

The movie also isn’t as funny as it needs to be. It’s weird to say, but there needed to be more racial humor. It’s funniest moments are the Altman children mocking their mother’s sudden insistence on observing Jewish tradition, despite none of the family having practiced for years. It’s a perfect angle for humor that has inherent edge but could also be delivered softly.

The film was in a wonderful position to add layers and themes to its humor. Establish the family’s shunning of its Jewish roots early, then have another silly scene about getting older that revisits the Jewish thing, then have a fight about Hillary’s sexual openness that revisits the aging and Jewish things, and so on.

It would be difficult to do right, but the movie doesn’t seem to have tried anything in particular to be funny other than signing Fey and Bateman. Just spitballing here.

This is Where I Leave You isn’t bad, per se — and is another movie that will appeal much more to older viewers — but it doesn’t have any real pop. It’s not funny, it’s not that heartwarming. It’s just sort of there.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and news editor for the NT Daily. At least I don’t live in Louisiana. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at reelentropy@gmail.com. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for.

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