Monday, February 23, 2015

"This Is Where I Leave You": Dramedy Spread Too Thin

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

As I watched this movie, I found myself thinking about the word “dramedy.”  I’ve always thought it a little kitschy, taking the genre of dramatic comedies and just combining the words for convenience.  However, as I watched This Is Where I Leave You, I couldn’t help but think there was a bit more to it; perhaps on a symbolic level, perhaps as a logistical distinction, or perhaps just as a clever way I thought of to start off this review.  See, the word “dramedy” seems to imply that the drama and comedy aspects of a film are intertwined with one another, interspersing comedy to add some relief during a film’s heavier moments.  This works well sometimes, especially when the tone would otherwise be too dour for the story the film is trying to tell.  However, This Is Where I Leave You often feels like the drama and the comedy are on two separate planes of existence, making this feel more like dramatic comedy than dramedy.

And this is a shame because this film has a really damn good cast, pulling in great comic TV stars like Jason Bateman and Tina Fey and putting them with the likes of Adam Driver, Corey Stoll and Jane Fonda, all of whom have some great acting chops.  When Fonda’s character’s husband dies, she brings her four children (played by the aforementioned actors) together for shiva, a seven day Jewish ritual of mourning.  Each of the children has their own issue that they’re dealing with, be it Bateman’s cheating wife, Fey’s work-obsessed husband, Stoll’s inability to impregnate his wife, or Driver’s inability to stop sleeping around even when he has a solid relationship.  Bateman is the undisputed protagonist of these proceedings, as he is given a romantic subplot in the middle of all this mayhem, but everyone is obviously pouring their souls into giving the best performances they can with the material they have.

It’s unfortunate then that the material is so lackluster.  As I said before, the comedy and drama have their own distinct scenes in the film to an almost mechanical degree, almost never overlapping in a way that feels organic.  The shifts can be as great as prat-fall physical comedy directly to saccharine sweet remembrances of the family patriarch, and that makes it really hard to find a definitive tone to the film.  When a film can’t seem to decide how it wants the audience to feel, it’s hard for the audience to feel anything, especially when the crux of the story is the emotional turmoil of coming together to grieve a loved one.  The result is a series of comic gags that fall flat and a serious story that’s hard to care about.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the script leaves a lot to be desired.  Despite how much I love the cast and admire the great job they tried to do, the film just has too many characters to maintain any sort of coherent narrative, with the exception being Bateman’s protagonist.  Each of the five family members has scenes of their own personal turmoil and they also have make narrative room for the dysfunction with each other, and while the film is thankfully only 100 minutes long, there just is not enough time to explore all these plotlines to the extent they deserve.  This makes sense, considering this is an adaptation of a novel, but some of these plot threads needed to be left on the cutting room floor, making way for the protagonist to carry most of the narrative weight while everyone else is relegated to the supporting cast.

As it is, however, This Is Where I Leave You is spread way too thin to be worth recommending.  There are plenty of good dramedies out there, but this sure as hell isn’t one of them.

Has Tina Fey ever successfully made the transition to the big screen?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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