Here are some of the things you will see should you find yourself seeing This Is Where I Leave You, the film adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s best-selling book: fist fights, a flipped car, pot, poop, a stolen Porsche, fake breasts, an extremely extensive amount of commentary about fake breasts, a mother coming out as a lesbian, multiple jokes about this mother coming out as a lesbian, multiple jokes about infertility, sex broadcast to a crowd through a baby monitor, “Time After Time” playing in an ice-skating rink, a wacky rabbi, a charming man-child, a manic pixie dream girl.
Oh, and also: a death, an affair, a car accident, a brain injury, a pregnancy, a possible miscarriage, a family in mourning.
If you were to plot the movie, directed by A Night at the Museum’s Shawn Levy and starring one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled, on a continuum between “drama” and “comedy,” it would fall precisely in the center. This could mean one of two things: either a poignancy that is perfectly tempered with hilarity, or a deep and frenetic confusion. For This Is Where I Leave You, it's the latter. You’ll laugh … you’ll cry … you’ll shrug.
Things take place over the seven days that the Altman family (the wealthy-suburb-of-New York City Altmans, to be clear) sit shiva for the patriarch they just lost to an unspecified terminal illness. This is not a family that would normally be inclined to partake in such a solemn ritual (atheism, Christmas trees, etc.) but they do it because, as Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) informs her children, their participation in it was their father’s dying wish. So the family comes together—brothers and sister, spouses and kids—to be in the same house. For seven days.
This could be a lovely thing, except that the Altmans, we learn early on, are the kind of people who love each other without going to the trouble of liking each other. Each of them is, in his or her way, sad. The oldest brother, Paul (Corey Stoll) has been trying for a baby, unsuccessfully, with his wife (Kathryn Hahn). Wendy (Tina Fey) is married to a guy who mostly ignores her. Phillip (Adam Driver) is a roguish playboy who is engaged to his former, and much older, therapist (Connie Britton). Judd (Jason Bateman) has just had his marriage fall apart after finding his wife in flagrante-ed with his boss—an affair, he learns, that has been going on for a year.
This is, on the one hand, the stuff of pathos and pique and Lifetime Original Movies; on the other, though, it is thematically rich terrain. There's a reason the trope of the dysfunctional family has proved such an enduring one in pop culture (and, of course, culture in general): All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. What will become of age-old rituals in an increasingly secular society? What will become of family? What will become of adulthood? These are open questions, and interesting ones.
But This Is Where I Leave You doesn't seem terribly interested in the ideas its own plot provokes. The movie’s main mission, it seems, is to impress you with its own quirk. “I’m sorry, Judd,” the Altman brother’s new love interest (Rose Byrne) tells him, after he tells her of his impending divorce. “It’s just been a profoundly shitty year for you.” (Later she will remark: “Anything can happen. Anything can happen all the time.”) Much of the film reads as a Bizarro World version of Arrested Development. Or of Modern Family. Or of Parenthood.
The difference, of course, is that This Is Where I Leave You is not a television show. It is not serial; it does not unfold, episode after episode; it does not have the luxury of time. Instead, it needs to cram everything—plot, characters, themes, nuance—into an hour and 43 minutes. This is an exceptionally difficult task, particularly given a cast (most of them best know for TV roles) whose members are each so talented and compelling and deserving of screen time. The film does not succeed at this task. It is too hurried; it is too ambitious; it is both too condensed and not condensed enough. The result of all this is a whiplash-inducing plot (a surprise pregnancy! an unsurprising breakup! a guy stealing his brother's car!) populated by relationships that read like dots connected rather than people. There is a problem when the most compelling character in a film is Connie Britton's hair.
We're living, the cliche goes, in a golden age of television. In part, this is because television allows its characters to sit and think and simply be with each other, without rushing things along too much. TV takes its time. It has time. It allows for rituals. This Is Where I Leave You, sitcom in the form of cinema, ends up as evidence of that.