Weddings and funerals.
They’re the cornerstones of any movie with a family ensemble. A perfect excuse to bring a group of jaded, dysfunctional people into close quarters with each other and, more importantly, make them stay there.
In the case of This Is Where I Leave You it’s a funeral. The family patriarch has died and being vaguely Jewish – a fact playfully brought up time and again throughout the 103 minute film – the Altman family are required to sit shiva, the seven day Jewish mourning ritual by which the direct kin of the deceased all stay together under the same roof.
I know. If it weren’t a millenniums old Jewish tradition I’d say it were a bit too convenient.
Either way, leading the ensemble is Jason Bateman’s straight-laced Judd. He arrives at the funeral in the midst of his own relationship crisis, intent to keep his head low and cruise through the proceedings without having to go into the details. It works about as well as you’d expect and over the course of the seven days he starts to re-evaluate the way he’s put his life together.
Of course, there are detours through several other characters as well. The cast that’s been assembled here is amazing. From Adam Driver and Tina Fey to Rose Byrne and Connie Britton, there’s frankly too many great performers in TIWILY to name comfortably. Unfortunately, with that collection of talent more than a few of them are left with little, if nothing, to do.
Indeed, the film can feel a bit staggered at times, particularly in the early going, trying to weave together so many characters and storylines. Some, like eldest son Paul (Corey Stoll) and his wife Alice come off feeling a tad one-dimensional. Others, like Connie Britton’s Tracey, just feel shoe-horned in.
Tina Fey felt especially underutilized playing only daughter Wendy. She gets plenty of screen time, yet too often gets stuck in the role of family historian, musing through the past in poorly written scenes designed to dump information on the audience. When she’s let loose she’s pretty funny, but in service of the script she’s kept caged up through the vast majority of the proceedings.
If I were to pick one gripe with TIWILY however, it’s that the film just feels a bit too familiar. There isn’t much here that we haven’t seen before out of the long list of other movie family ensembles, from the old-fashioned family homestead to the sibling blow-up right on the front lawn. Thematically as well the film sticks pretty closely to the tried and true, with the odd notable exception.
Again, all of this tends to hurt the film most in the laughs department. TIWILY is just not the laugh out loud funny one would hope for given the comedic chops of its very talented cast. Certainly Fey’s not the only one held back, just the most visible.
With that said, TIWILY plays quite a bit better in its latter half. Once the debt of establishing all those characters has been paid the movie’s finally allowed to the play with them in really rewarding ways. Mainly, the focus seems to return to Judd – by far the most interesting and developed character in the movie – and in turn he seems to elevate the stories of everyone around him.
TIWILY is just a series of weird dichotomies. It has a fantastic cast but can never figure out quite how to use them. It’s first and foremost an ensemble piece, yet seems to excel most when its focus lies on its main character. And while the majority of the movie feels like a tired rehash of the typical family movie tropes, its ending was satisfying enough to make me want to semi-forgive the slow start.
In short, it has all the internal dysfunction of the family it portrays.
Final Score: 2.5/5