This Is Where I Leave The Theater
By Johnny Pomatto
THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU
In one of the early scenes in THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, Jason Bateman returns home to surprise his wife on her birthday. Not only does he find her in bed with another man, but that other man happens to be his boss. Watching this scene, I got a sudden sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t I just seen this situation in another movie? In an instant I remembered that it was in David Wain’s film “They Came Together,” a movie spoof of romantic comedies, where each scene portrays movie tropes that are so common, that they’ve become clichés. If this scene was enough of a cliché to make fun of in a movie from six months ago, what does that say about seeing it now? Some say that there are only about fifteen actual plots in the movies, and we just find new ways to tell them over and over again. THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, Jonathan Tropper’s adaptation of his own novel, seems to be trying to tell all of them at once, and employs no new methods in doing so. This is another dysfunctional family drama that you’ve seen hundreds of times before. The only draw here is the exceptional cast that has been assembled, but none of them are strong enough to make this a worthwhile experience.
When the patriarch of the Altman family dies, the children return home to sit Shiva. As Jane Fonda’s matriarch says, “For the next seven days, you’re all grounded,” a line that seems written for the sole purpose of reducing the plot to a single sentence that can be played in the trailer. None of the Altman children are happy. Bateman is not over his wife’s infidelity; Tina Fey is suffering in an unhappy marriage and pining for her local ex boyfriend. Corey Stoll can’t get his wife, (Kathryn Hahn), pregnant, and favorite son Adam Driver returns with a much older fiancé, (Connie Britton), who happens to be his therapist. Chances are I’ve just named at least one actor who you’re particularly fond of, and while many of them give effective and game performances, (Bateman and Driver are particular standouts), none are able to sell the contrived sitcom plots that they’re saddled with. Every Altman sibling has a problem, and all of those problems are easily solved with neatly placed devices and interventions that unfold over the week. The lonely and lovesick siblings have convenient romantic counterparts waiting for them, in the guises of Rose Byrne and Timothy Olyphant. The ones who need to grow up get a little maternal wisdom and marijuana-fueled monologues that make everything right. Though dozens of similar and better films came into my mind while I watched THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, I kept coming back to last year’s “August: Osage County,” which was admittedly a much better play than a movie. While this film refuses to let the credits roll with a single loose end or unresolved plotline, “August” at least was daring enough to make each character emerge from their stay in the family house worse off than when they entered it. While neither extreme is ideal for storytelling, at least the latter feels refreshingly sloppy and true to life, not as if there were some overseeing force guiding its characters seamlessly along a perfect arch.
The film is directed by Shawn Levy, veteran of the “Night at the Museum” franchise, as well as several other broad comedies. There seems to be a bit of a trend of mainstream comedy directors trying to dip into dramatic territory. Director of “Fred Claus” and “Wedding Crashers” is set to deliver us a prestige picture with “The Judge” next month. There’s nothing inherently wrong with directors working outside their comfort zone and attempting something a bit more challenging, but when a film like THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is already based upon so many familiar and well wrung ideas, the only way to save it is with a director who might find something new in the material, rather than a “point and shoot” filmmaker whose reputation and box office clout is able to attract A list stars. As for the script itself, I hear Mr. Tropper is an accomplished an admired writer, and it’s more than possible that his story works significantly better in book form. After all, in a book you get the benefit of descriptive narrative and prose. With a film you’re just left with the leftover dialogue, with little in between.
I can’t speak to the book’s popularity, but even with that as a factor I simply can’t imagine what could draw such a talented cast to such a boring, familiar drama. And most of them give fine performances, which is somehow even more upsetting. I almost wish I could have caught a few of them phoning it in, just so I’d be comforted in the feeling that they thought the material was as banal as I did. For the past few years I’ve been watching the incredibly charismatic and hilarious Jason Bateman totally commit and lend his talents to forgettable films like “Disconnect,” “Identity Thief,” and now this. He could easily be groomed into one of our best actors and biggest stars if only we could give him a script worthy of him. Watching THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, I kept thinking of Gene Siskel’s famous bar for what makes a good movie. Siskel would often ask “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” Boy, I wish I could have been around craft services on the set of this film.
I first read Robyn Davidson’s memoir TRACKS in 7th grade. Though I couldn’t have had less in common with Davidson and her quest to cross a 2,000 mile Australian desert, I was fascinated by the tale and took much pleasure in imagining the vivid landscapes that she was traversing, where few living things were meant to survive. Thanks to the new film by John Curran, I no longer need to imagine, as every detail Davidson’s journey has been recreated and presented with stunning visual poetry. Mia Wasikowska portrays Davidson with a bravery and confidence that she knows exactly what she’s doing, even when she doesn’t. Early in the film when she’s asked why should want to attempt such a feat, she responds with a simple “why not.” She doesn’t entirely know why she’s compelled to make this journey. Possibly to impress her father, who had done some similar exploring as a young man. Or perhaps she wants to prove to others and herself that she has a deeper bond with the nature and culture of the Australian land than all of the people doubting her. She spends much of the film not just defying those who worry for her safety, but outright shaming them for not understanding her passions, as well as the traditions of the aboriginal people that she so desperately wants to be a part of. Part of Davidson’s journey in the film is the catharsis of realizing that she’s not as close to this world as she realizes and that she’s just as susceptible to its dangers as anyone.
One of the doubters in the film that she has the most contempt for is National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, (played with deceptive simplicity by Adam Driver), who meets her periodically on her journey to help document her progress, much to her dismay. Though Smolan appears in only a handful of scenes, he becomes her closest human contact when she is at a point where she has never felt more alone, and Driver is exceptional at attempting to reach out to make a connection with Robyn, only to gradually make her appreciate her reliance on others that she’s so reluctant to accept. Wasikowska is a wonder in this film, often conveying so much with nothing but a look. After all, there isn’t anyone to talk to except her three camels and her dog companion.
My only real lament with TRACKS is that too often Marion Nelson’s screenplay tries to shape the story into a neater narrative than is necessary. We see too much of Robyn’s preparation of acquiring and training camels prior to her journey, and the primary purpose of these scenes seems to be to surround her with more characters who can spell out facts and verbally provide perspective of the task she’s undertaking. Once Robyn is in the desert on her own, we’re subjected to a lot more voice-over and narrative than is necessary. I kept thinking that this is a film that would have greatly benefitted from the style and silent tone used in last year’s Redford at sea picture “All Is Lost.” In fact the audience barely needs to be told of the changes in Robyn’s emotions at all, because we get the sense that we know more of what demons and hardships she will encounter on her journey even before she does. Still, this is a stunning tale that is sometimes too bluntly told, but beautifully shown. The photography and landscapes, some of the greatest filmed since Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” are a visual feast and life changing on their own. The sometimes overly simplistic screenplay doesn’t detract from the story all that much, and Wasikowska makes you feel every step taken on the hot, sandy ground.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes