“Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The opening line of Anna Karenina has become one of the most famous first sentences in all literature. So far as 19th century Russian aphorisms go, people seem to agree that the sentiment behind Leo Tolstoy’s words is broadly true.
But not Shawn Levy. The director—responsible for the likes of Real Steel, The Internship, Date Night, and a number of other formative works of contemporary American culture—has taken a defiant stand against the tyranny of Tolstoy’s words. His new film, a dramatic comedy called This Is Where I Leave You, is a star-studded and pathologically determined retort to the idea that there aren't any variations to domestic misery whatsoever. Relentlessly generic, aggressively “relatable," and lacking a single fresh idea about the high-strung discord between relatives, This Is Where I Leave You is a brilliant conceptual statement about the sameness of familial strife. It’s also lifeless, unfocused, and painfully unfunny.
Adapted from a novel of the same name by Jonathan Tropper (who’s also credited for the film’s screenplay), This Is Where I Leave You aspires to be a funhouse mirror for each viewer’s family, regardless of what kind of family that might be. (While the premise hinges on exclusively Jewish traditions, the film takes great pains to make sure that the goyim in the audience won’t ever feel like they’re not watching themselves). Belonging to that sub-genre of movies about large, somewhat estranged families who are forced to go home and spend some time under the same roof, This Is Where I Leave You opens with the death of the Altman clan’s patriarch. His widow tells her four children that their father’s last request was for his grown kids to return to the family’s Westchester home and sit Shiva (a week-long period of mourning in which the relatives of the deceased sit in their house and receive visitors). Hilarity ensues.
Judd Altman, the sanest and most beleaguered of the Altman offspring, serves as the closest thing this overpopulated film has to a protagonist. He’s recently discovered that his wife is sleeping with his boss, and his role for most of the movie will be to offer blank stares and dry comments in response to his family’s ca-razy antics, just to make sure that the audience feels comfortable laughing both at and with everything that’s happening, amused but never uncomfortable. This will come as a huge surprise, but Judd is played by Jason Bateman.
Judd’s siblings include his blandly gruff sister Wendy (Tina Fey, who delivers bad comic dialogue as believably as Rob Schneider might deliver Shakespeare), his blandly gruff older brother Paul (Corey Stoll, very bald), and his screw-up baby brother Phillip (Adam Driver, relying on a kooky but earnest comic mania to consistently transcend the material). Also joining the fun are Paul’s baby-crazed wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn), Phillip’s rich older girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton), a local ice skater who happens to be Judd’s old flame (Rose Byrne as Penny), and a handsome neighbor named Horry—that’s not a typo —who’s never left town due to a vague brain injury he sustained falling head-first out of a Nicholas Sparks novel. He used to date Wendy, he’s played by Timothy Olyphant, and his character is totally worthless.
Finally, there’s Hillary (Jane Fonda), the family matriarch and leader of this three-ring circus. Her privileged kids have lived off the proceeds from the embarrassing tell-all book she wrote about their family, the seed for a generation of emotional rot that has stunted communication and turned every secret into its own strain of cancer. Appropriately, it’s her character who epitomizes the movie's tone—more accurately, it’s her massive fake breasts. Overstuffed, artificial, and the subject of far more jokes than laughs, Hillary’s heaving silicone boobs are where I Leave You. (The movie's sense of place is so non-existent that the title certainly can’t refer to an actual place).
This Is Where I Leave You ultimately becomes a movie about the perils of playing things safe, cementing Levy’s hiring as a disastrous one. The director’s aesthetic might best be defined as “the most boring version of the most obvious choice." The film’s most (only?) memorable image, a top-down shot of Judd and Penny lying on a sheet of ice and staring up at the camera, is borrowed directly from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But where the characters in Michel Gondry’s modern classic were sprawled out across a frozen lake, Judd and Penny are on a freshly zamboni-ed skating rink, a sea of buried pipes keeping the water from melting. When it comes to This is Where I Leave You, natural’s not in it. Almost everything in this movie is as artificial as Hillary’s chest. The Altman’s are less of a family than they are a math equation, with Adam Driver the only variable. Each member’s easily diagnosable problem is solved with a moment of stressed catharsis and some Starbucks music, courtesy of Michael Giacchino’s paycheck score (the climactic scene, however, is reserved for Coldplay).
August: Osage County without the pathos, The Family Stone without the cancer, The Royal Tenenbaums without the everything, This Is Where I Leave You is what would happen if you simultaneously projected every movie about a dysfunctional family on the same screen. Everyone will see something of themselves, but when the lights come up, your family will seem stranger than ever. Maybe Tolstoy was right after all.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.