“I’ve spent my whole life playing it safe,” whines Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), the middle-class milquetoast at the center of This Is Where I Leave You. Yes, well, so has director Shawn Levy, but on the basis of his latest vacuous trifle he has no apparent intention, as Altman does, of effecting a much-needed change. Doubtless there are more incompetent filmmakers working in Hollywood today, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more uninteresting one; the dozen-odd dramatic comedies he’s churned out over the past 15 years represent the height of by-committee blandness, each in turn number-crunched and market-calibrated to appeal to the broadest demographic. Films like Date Night and The Internship are nothing if not rousing feats of four-quadrant hollowness.
The most charitable thing you can say about This Is Where I Leave You is that it is resolutely innocuous — a nothing of a movie, neutered and sanitary. Its subject, perhaps unintentionally, is the inexhaustible narcissism of affluent white people, who here mope and moan their way through various break-ups and infidelities. Rich people, the film suggests, suffer the same indignities in romance as the rest of us. Fair enough, but you may find it rather more difficult to extend your sympathies to Bateman’s heartbroken cuckold when he begins cruising through the suburbs in his luxury convertible.
Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize This Is Where I Leave You for being too narrow in its conception of the world — one milieu is not inherently less valuable as a subject than any other, after all, and Levy is welcome to make films about whomever he prefers. And yet you have to wonder about the social myopia of a millionaire who feels compelled to bemoan his hardships at feature length. And anyway, who, exactly, is the audience for a movie that so openly lionizes one obnoxious family’s prodigal wealth? Consider Martin Amis’s bafflement at the success of Four Weddings and a Funeral: “I can see that the upper classes might enjoy watching the upper classes portrayed with such whimsical fondness,” he wrote in the New Yorker. “But why should it appeal to four hundred berks from Hendon?” Early on in This Is Where I Leave You, Bateman slumps teary-eyed into a burnished-oak chair in the middle of his preposterously oversized New York apartment. Levy has the gall to slather on a bit of sad-sack piano — minor chords. Come on. You cannot play minor chords in digs that nice.
“It’s hard to make a personal film based on your own experience,” Thom Andersen warns in Los Angeles Plays Itself, “when you’re absurdly over-privileged. You tend not to notice the less fortunate, and that’s almost everybody.” No kidding. Levy has so little interest in anybody other than his comfortably rich that the world of the film doesn’t feel properly populated: There aren’t even service-industry workers on the periphery. (This probably goes without saying, but there isn’t a single black face onscreen.) Exclusivity of this kind is not inherently bad. But it does betray the movie’s foundational problem: It is oblivious to life as anyone really lives it.