Friday, September 19, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You: Too much left behind

This Is Where I Leave You (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for sexual candor, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Family dynamics can be messy, even disastrous ... which undoubtedly explains the popularity of stories with dysfunctional kinfolk.

It’s comforting to think that we’re not the only ones with a loser younger sibling, or a daft uncle, or a waspish parent.

When Hilary (Jane Fonda, center) reveals that her just-departed husband's final wish was
for his entire family to sit Shiva for a week, this comes as ghastly news to her estranged
children: from left, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll), Judd (Jason Bateman) and
Phillip (Adam Driver).
Even more comforting, after a moment’s reflection, to realize that such situations must be quite common, if they wind up as popular books and movies that feel familiar to so many different people.

Novelist Jonathan Tropper has made a career of scathingly hilarious novels about hapless protagonists buffeted by crises involving careers, parents, siblings, spouses and other elements forever beyond their ability to control. Indeed, “control” — or the lack thereof — is Tropper’s go-to plotline: His classic protagonist is a guy who assumes he's got his act together, only to discover that catastrophe waits just around the corner.

No surprise, then, that one of Tropper’s books — This Is Where I Leave You — has migrated to the big screen, albeit with mixed results. Tropper adapted the novel himself, so we can assume he made a point of retaining key character arcs, comedic encounters and snarky one-liners. He also has the benefit of a large and talented ensemble cast: a collection of potential scene-stealers forever in danger of upstaging each other, much the way large and boisterous families frequently spin out of control.

But I’m not sure Shawn Levy’s overly broad, slapstick sensibilities make him the best director for this project. Subtlety isn’t in Levy’s vocabulary, as proven by uneven, overblown farces such as Date Night, the Steve Martin Pink Panther remake, and the ongoing Night at the Museum franchise. Tropper’s books resonate because of their unerring blend of comedy, pathos and redemptive self-awareness; Levy’s shrill, shrieking approach to humor tends to overwhelm everything else.

Which is a shame, because a dozen richly flawed characters wander throughout this often chaotic narrative, and we can’t help feeling that some of their best interactions got left behind. Instead, we’re treated far too often to (for example) a toddler who drags his potty chair from room to room, plunking onto the seat whenever the urge strikes, and then proudly displaying the results to everybody at hand. Us included.

Which, naturally, includes an episode of poop flung onto an unprepared adult.

When that sort of material emerges within the first 10 minutes of a film, we can't help expecting an overall tone that will undercut the gentler, redemptive moments to be found within Tropper’s script.

New York City-based radio producer Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) loses his longtime job, his marriage and his comfortable apartment in a blinding flash, when he arrives home early one afternoon and finds his wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepard). Nor is this a one-off; Judd has failed to notice this extramarital affair for an entire year ... which he naturally finds deeply unsettling.

But he scarcely has time to process this crisis, before learning that his father has passed away. The shell-shocked Judd returns to his childhood home, re-uniting with three contentious siblings who probably never got along all that well even as kids, and have grown further distant with the arrival of adulthood. Still, they do share some common ground, if only a mutual defense pact against their larger-than-life mother, Hilary (Jane Fonda), an earthy therapist who wrote a best-selling book on child-rearing ... filled with candid assessments of her own children.

For which they still haven’t forgiven her (and who would?).

Paul (Corey Stoll), the eldest child, remained in the ol’ home town to run their father’s business: an altruistic “adult” decision that he never fails to mention. Alas, he and wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) have been trying desperately to have children, to no avail. Making matters worse, Judd and Annie briefly dated, before their respective marriages, and this knowledge clearly chews at Paul.

Youngest sibling Phillip (Adam Driver) perches at the other end of the responsibility meter: a hot mess of a coddled, self-absorbed, arrested adolescent who, in one of Tropper’s many droll one-liners, “has spent his life reeling in the slack as fast as everybody could cut it for him.” Phillip shows up with his much older therapist, Tracy (Connie Britton), also his newest romantic conquest.

Finally, sole daughter Wendy (Tina Fey) is only too eager to resume the bossy big sister role on which she obviously thrived when they all were younger. She arrives in the company of husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) and their two children — one of them the aforementioned potty monster — and seems, on the surface, to have an ideal life. But the appearance is just as deceptive as Judd’s recently torpedoed life; Barry is a workaholic jerk who rolls phone calls during the funeral service, fergawdsake.

All concerned get another uncomfortable surprise when Hilary announces that their father’s dying wish was for his family to sit Shiva for the customary seven days, receiving visitors in the living room while — gasp, shudder — catching up and getting to know each other better.

Trouble is, everybody thinks they know each other well enough, thank you very much, due to a blend of their mother’s TMI behavior and the mere reality of growing up together in the same household. But here, finally, is where the sweetly enlightening underbelly of Tropper’s narrative finally emerges. Sibling rivalry notwithstanding, these four remain bonded for the simple reason that, deep down, they’re mutually loyal, and they trust each other.

“You guys are idiots,” Wendy quite correctly observes, at one point, as her three brothers once again get themselves into trouble, “but you’re my idiots.”

Then, too, Hilary is as ferociously protective as a mother lion ... despite a tendency to worsen every situation with her far-too-candid views on sex, relationships and child-rearing.

Sidebar romantic entanglements are provided, respectively, by Penny (Rose Byrne), Judd’s long-ago high school flame, also back in the old neighborhood; and Horry Callen (Timothy Olyphant), the across-the-street neighbor Wendy left behind, possibly to her regret.

Additional comic relief — not that we really need any — is supplied by Rabbi Charles Grodner (Ben Schwartz), a guy the entire Altman family recalls as a pot-smoking dweeb cursed with the nickname Boner. Not even rabbinical robes can shake that image, and, lamentably, Levy overplays the frat-party-esque nature of Rabbi Grodner’s temple services.

All this interpersonal angst obviously requires the careful spinning of many, many plates, a balance Tropper had no trouble maintaining in a 352-page novel. Levy does less well with this 103-minute film, emphasizing some characters while almost abandoning others.

We’re easily charmed by the rapport between Bateman and Fey, who deftly convey an emotional depth that paints Judd and Wendy as the two closest siblings. They know each other the best, sharing confidences and war stories about failed marriages. Long ago, as children, they climbed outside their bedroom windows to watch the night sky while perched atop a patch of roof; their doing the same now, as adults, is deeply touching.

Britton also gets considerable mileage from her sharply observed performance as Tracy, easily the healthiest adult on view in this zoo. Tracy is sufficiently self-aware to recognize that a relationship with Phillip is unwise for all sorts of reasons, and Britton skillfully suggests the wry frustration of an accomplished individual who perceives her own helplessness in the face of love.

Indeed, Britton’s Tracy is an entirely serious character, and therefore somewhat out of place in this madcap environment. The same can be said of Horry, a robust but touchingly fragile guy who confuses easily in the wake of a long-ago accident that left him brain-damaged. Olyphant is far too good an actor — and Horry is far too interesting a character — to be sidelined as he is here.

Fey and Olyphant share one choice scene, as Wendy and Horry briefly contemplate what might have been.

When it comes to being sidelined, though, Debra Monk is particularly ill-treated as Horry’s mother Linda, a longtime family friend whose presence in these events builds to a third-act revelation that Levy handles quite clumsily.

And that, ultimately, is this film’s major problem: The balance is off. Levy hammers the pratfalls, pot-smoking inanity (seriously?) and one-liners (at which Fey and Driver excel), at the expense of the poignant moments that give this story its essential heart. Bateman does his best to remain the key sympathetic protagonist — the character most acted upon, who arguably deserves some sort of happy resolution — but it’s often an uphill struggle.

Being silly is easy; it gets a quick laugh, but the moment is fleeting. Films truly resonate when we’ve grown to like, love and identify with their characters. 1990’s Home Alone didn’t become a monster hit solely because of the final 20-minute slapstick duel with the two bandits; it touched our hearts because, by then, we’d gotten to know plucky young Kevin McCallister very well, and we were firmly on his side.

I’ve no doubt readers formed a similar bond with Judd, his siblings and the various other characters in Tropper’s novel. Sadly, Levy’s superficial, giggle-laden adaptation won’t linger long in anybody’s memory.

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