Friday, September 19, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You

Review by Pamela Zoslov

The novelist Jonathan Tropper has enjoyed a success most writers can scarcely dream of. Four of his comic, semi-autobiographical novels were optioned for movies within a week of publication (The Book of Joe, How to Talk to a Widower, Everything Changes, and This Is Where I Leave You.) Tropper has a breezy style and a flair for the wry quip. Readers love his books, and they seem like a natural fit for the big screen.

It's disappointing, then, that the first of the Tropper adaptations, THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, is so limp, especially considering the appeal of the novel and the likeability of the cast. The book's first-person narrative doesn't translate to the screen; most of its humor is in the sardonic monologue of Judd (surnamed Foxman in the book, Altman in the movie – did Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman object?). While the book is composed of Judd's wry musings about his impending divorce and his dysfunctional family, Jason Bateman, who plays Judd in the movie, has very few clever lines. It's too bad, because Bateman excels at this type of quietly put-upon, sarcastic character. It's odd that Tropper himself wrote the script; screenwriter Tropper has done novelist Tropper no favors. Why not incorporate some of Judd's monologue into voice-over narration?

Judd is a thirtyish radio producer who comes home one day to find his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer) having lusty sex with his boss, Wade (Aaron Lazar), a shock jock in the mold of, but less funny than, Howard Stern. Adding to his despair, Judd gets news that his long-ailing father has died. Though he was an atheist, Dad's final request was that his family sit shiva (the traditional seven-day Jewish mourning ritual) at the family home in upstate New York.

Judd hits the highway, and the movie, directed with no great distinction by Shawn Levy, becomes one of those familiar “homecoming” comedies. The Altman siblings assemble at the family's home in a suburban town modeled on Tropper's native New Rochelle. There they occupy stiff-backed “shiva” chairs and dine on catered trays under the watchful eye of Mom (Jane Fonda), a psychologist and best-selling author whose most prominent trait(s) are her gargantuan breast implants and a tendency to reminisce fondly about her late husband's penis.

The ensemble is so large and ill-defined it's hard to keep track without a program. Judd's siblings are bossy Wendy (Tina Fey), uptight Paul (Corey Stoll) and the youngest, irresponsible Phillip (Adam Driver of Girls fame). The siblings' partners also figure into the mix: Wendy's work-obsessed financier husband, Barry; Paul's wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn), whose efforts to conceive a baby have made her a half-crazed; and womanizer Phillip's newest flame, Tracy (Connie Britton), a wealthy psychotherapist twenty years his senior. And then there is Penny (pretty Aussie actress Rose Byrne), who teaches ice skating and still has a crush on Judd, and Horry (Timothy Olyphant), the neighbor boy who never left home. Horry was Wendy's boyfriend before an accident (a bar fight in the book, a car crash in the movie) left him with brain damage.

The movie labors to generate sentiment about the Altman family relationships, but only the story of Horry, frozen in teenage time, suggests real poignancy Sweet and slightly confused, Horry helps out at the Altmans' sporting-goods store and greets Wendy with a woozy “Hello, Sunflower.” Wendy, unhappy in her marriage, is drawn again to Horry; privately, she weeps for him.

Among the Altman siblings, nerves fray and old rivalries are reignited. Paul is jealous of Judd because he used to date Alice, who is enraged to learn that Judd's ex, Quinn, is pregnant. Judd deals with the end of his marriage, impending fatherhood and a possible new relationship with Penny. The narrative is inert, lurching between forced comedy and forced sentiment. The movie shares with the book a regrettable penchant for slapstick — a fistfight, an unfunny running joke about the rabbi (Ben Schwartz), who's annoyed when the Altmans call him by his teenage nickname, “Boner,” and who runs worship services like they're a Vegas floor show.

Here's an example of how the book's humor got lost in translation. In the book, Judd visits Penny at the skating rink, where the music playing over the loudspeakers is by Huey Lewis and the News and the Dream Academy. “Why are all skating rinks trapped in the eighties?” he muses. They skate to Cyndi Lauper's “Time After Time,” and Judd observes, “It's like we've been transplanted into a romantic comedy, and all that's left to do is say something meaningful and kiss Penny at center ice while the music swells, and the happy ending is guaranteed.” The movie offers no such ironic distance; it becomes the thing the book satirized. Judd and Penny lie on the skating-rink ice, looking up, as “Time After Time” plays. And a happy ending is guaranteed. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.

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