Tag Archives: Piers Marchant

DVD Review: My Own Private Idaho: Citerion Blu-ray Edition

Dir. Gus Van Sant
Score: 7.5

As it was the film that truly cemented the late River Phoenix’ sterling legacy as a formidable actor of his generation, it’s understandable that Gus Van Sant’s serio-comic, surrealist story of a pair of homeless cats trying to hardscrabble their way in the world, would be best remembered for his performance, which is startling in its naked immediacy, but there’s a lot more here to treasure than just Phoenix’ considerable talent. Van Sant, who built an oeuvre of curious indie outliers – Drugstore Cowboy gave way to Idaho, which lead to To Die For) before turning towards more mainstream material, had a kind of kitchen-sink approach to his storytelling (hence a propensity for fanciful comic flights here, such as a discussion by the male models as they appear on magazine covers, and a Shakespearean bent to his plot), which, when it worked in harmony with his material, lead to wonderfully droll observations.

As the soulful, doomed Mike, Phoenix is certainly the star of the film, but don’t totally underestimate Keanu Reeves’ Scott, a trust-fund kid who’s enjoying the lowlife a bit before embracing his financially superior destiny. Van Sant, who often worked with homeless youth in his spare time, has a way with the world they inhabit and genuine warmth and sympathy for what they must endure on a day-to-day basis. In this, Phoenix, who fully inhabited the role much as his brother Joaquin has done throughout his career, was the perfect muse with whom Van Sant could focus his considerable creative energies.


This beautiful Criterion BD release also includes interviews, a making of doc (from 2005), deleted scenes, and an illustrated conversation between Van Sant and Todd Haynes, among other goodies.

DVD Review: Two Days, One Night: Criterion BD Edition

Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Score: 9.5

The best film of 2014, and it wasn’t terribly close. It comes from the brilliant Belgian directing team, the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre & Luc), whose work has long shimmered with plainspoken elemental human truths. This film is a brilliant addition to their oeuvre. It stars the mesmerizing Marion Cotillard as a working-class mother, just returning to work after a bout with depression, only to find her boss has held a vote with her co-workers to keep their bonuses at the expense of her job. She is given one weekend to change their minds or be laid off. Deceptively simple in its execution, but positively stunning in its effect: It’s as honest and insightful about the human condition as Bicycle Thieves, an assertion I by no means make lightly. In the end, it’s an example of one of the rarest and best forms of morality cinema: It makes no demands, and grinds no axes, but makes its powerful statement in absolute service to its characters. A triumph.

This gorgeous Criterion blu-ray edition also features interviews with the Dardenne brothers, as well as Cotillard and co-star Fabrizio Rongione, a tour of the film’s locations, and When Léon M.’s Boot Went Down the Meuse for the First Time, a Dardenne doc from 1979, among other goodies.

DVD Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour: Criterion Blu-ray Edition

Dir. Alain Resnais
Score: 8.5

Famously in my family, my parents went to see this Alain Resnais classic when it first came out in 1959. One of them loved it, one of them hated it, and they debated its merits in the days afterward – and for years after that (when the title ever came up in conversation, my sister and I knew what was coming). Delicately directed by Resnais, working from an intricate screenplay by novelist Margaurite Duras, the film is ostensibly about a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva), in Hiroshima to make a decidedly anti-war film, who has an affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), as they debate their philosophy on war. What it’s really concerning though is what we talk about when we talk about war, an observation on the ways in which we communicate with each other, as humans, combatants, and doomed lovers (a Duras specialty).

Similarly hypnotic and trance inducing as Resnais later masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad, the film is little more than an extended, slightly existential conversation between two soulful people (perhaps an inspiration to Richard Linklater for his excellent Before series), that is always fascinating and engaging. It might not have the same shock-value it did when it was first released, but it remains every bit as vital. As it happens, I can never seem to remember which of my parents liked it and which one hated it, but, given the film’s circumstances, that feels strangely appropriate.

This handsome Criterion BD release also is laden with extras, including a commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, interviews with Resnais and Riva, and a mini-doc on the film’s arduous restoration.

Film Review: Blackhat

Dir. Michael Mann
Score: 3.5

Trust empty-headed stylist Michael Mann to create a cyber-thriller in which he attempts to dramatize the actual macro insertion of a virus through a mainframe. The camera swoops on the microcircuit boards like Luke’s X-Wing approaching the Death Star, then travels up through flashing impulses, triggering the lite-brite-like wave of virus. It’s the kind of gesture that Mann, who increasingly over the years, has given up his dogged pursuit of auteur status and just embraced his brand of cutting edge, flashy ’80s TV roots, finds himself making these days. If anything, given the ham-handed nature of Morgan Davis Foehl’s blithely idiotic script, he might just have figured he had very little to lose.

Sadly, he was probably right. The international, jet-setting nature of the plot, which sets off with the lone virus causing a near nuclear catastrophe in China, before spinning through Wall Street, Hong Kong, and, ultimately Jakarta, barely holds our attention, as the witless characters — a collection of multi-cultural cyber-sleuths, FBI operatives, a former convict hacker, sprung from the can in order to help catch the culprit, and the U.S. Marshall assigned to follow him — spring from unlikely scenarios in rapid-fire succession in order to make their quarry

The convict, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, with an improbable slicked back quasi-pompadour) happens to be best friends and former MIT roomies with Dawai (Leehom Wang), the Chinese representative on the task force, whose comely sister, Lien (Wei Tang), instantly and regrettably becomes Hathaway’s love interest. Rounding out the somewhat rag-tag crew, Carol (Viola Davis), the FBI agent, who more or less acts as the den mother for the others, and Jessup (Holt McCallany), the taciturn Marshall, whose expression never seems to change through the course of the film.

As they go through their wearying paces, from country to country, eventually lighting upon Kassar (Ritchie Coster), the goateed bag-man for the actual criminal kingpin, and Hathaway and Lien fall ever deeply more in banal love (as neither has a personality to speak of, we can imagine they fall at least partially for each other’s richly swank designer shades), the film sort of lurches along, propelled with ridiculous bits of revelation, all leading up to its thoroughly ludicrous climax, in which one, severely undertrained ex-con singlehandedly takes on a squadron of highly trained mercenaries, armed only with a selection of sharpened hand tools, and a protective vest of books and magazines taped to his impressive midriff (which suggests, if nothing else, Hathaway was at least able to watch “The Wire” while in the joint). Who knew prison-life could properly train you to become a skilled assassin?

To be fair, I’ve never particularly been a Mann devotee, finding the vast majority of his work (with the notable exception of The Informer) an extended exercise of slick stylistics, excusing pretty tepid films, but his previous films at least never seemed quite as empty and craven as this one. He mixes in his usual blend of jumpy, hand-held work, especially during the film’s few hand-to-hand combat scenes, a tired effect that has more than worn out its welcome, and stacks the film with an assortment of striking backdrops (one gets the feeling his location scout does more than half of his work for him), not to mention the good looks of the two leads, who nevertheless shun anything of what you might call chemistry in favor of mewling looks and gentle hand stroking.

Mann never much had the goods to back it up, but his films — by dint of their self-importance and their A-list casts, at least had the sheen of an event. This little thriller, stuck out in the no man’s land of January releases, feels like an afterthought, something between more impressive-seeming projects in development that one imagines aren’t coming down the pipeway any time soon.

Film Review: American Sniper

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Score: 4.9

If you had somehow been tasked with creating an iron-clad, true-blue American war hero, you would likely have conjured up something quite along the lines of Chris Kyle, a Texas-born former rodeo cowboy, who watched 9/11 in horror and enlisted for the Navy SEALS shortly thereafter in order to make a difference and help protect the country he loved. Big and barrel chested, with a loving wife and family at home, Kyle was also almost alarmingly effective as a Sniper, recording an astounding 160 kills during his four tours of duty in Iraq. Such a hero that he was dubbed “the Legend” by his fellow soldiers, and had earned the highest pay-out for his head from Al Qaeda, a twisted kind of homage to his effectiveness.

A man this dedicated to his country — not to mention this bloody effective in neutralizing the enemy, and saving untold lives of the soldiers he was protecting from his perch on the arid rooftops — and seemingly for all the best and most agreeable reasons would not only be the military’s PR department’s wet dream, he would be so bulletproof, even those pesky liberals and gun-control reformers would have to grudgingly acknowledge the heroic nature of the man. To create a film celebrating his military experience, then, it would stand to reason, Clint Eastwood — he of the steely glare, right-wing politics, and storied film-making career — would be the perfect choice to craft a fable that sounded too damn good to be true, even if it were.

Unfortunately, though, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall — working from a memoir by Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James Defelice — have chosen to only tell the part of his story that makes his heroism seem larger than life: He starts out a reckless cowboy, enlists when he feels needed, leads an exemplary military record over the course of four grueling tours of duty, finally comes home and after some rough patches, re-engages into civilian life and works with other damaged soldiers to give them support and care, even as their lives are crumbling around them. What the film curiously chooses to essentially ignore, except for a jarringly quick post-script, is that Kyle was eventually murdered at a shooting range by a particularly deranged former soldier suffering from severe PTSD.

What the film has to offer instead, is a rousing bit of American military agitprop, with a beefed-up Bradley Cooper in the lead role, and Sienna Miller as Taya, his long-suffering but intensely strong wife, celebrating the American spirit of bootstrap politics and a quixotic sense of justice-serving to those “savages” in the Middle East with a face-full of patriotic, expertly fired, lead.

Indeed, one of the film’s central (and completely fictional) antagonists is the Iraqi equivalent of Kyle, a former Olympic Syrian sharp-shooter named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), quick and agile as a jungle cat, who prowls the rooftops and takes out dozens of Americans without leaving a trace. For all we know, he is exactly as revered and elevated as Kyle for his country, but the film takes special care not to give him — or any of the enemy — a moment of sympathetic recognition. And when Kyle finally does take him on directly, leading to perhaps the shot of a lifetime in the sniper business, we are lead to be relieved that this “savage” (as Kyle and his fellow comrades refer) has finally been vanquished.

If there is any irony abounding, it would appear to be lost on the 84-year-old Eastwood, who, one imagines, is quite happy to play this one straight as an Indiana highway. The thing is, as depicted, Kyle is perfectly decent and honorable kind of soldier: He laments that his first confirmed kills involved a woman and a small boy who were attempting to toss a grenade at a group of marines, despite the American lives he knows he saved. He’s hardly a thoughtless, gun-toting good ol’ boy, even though he is highly revered by them. It’s certainly his other qualities that attract Taya when they first meet in a bar, and the hook of the film’s last act, wherein Kyle finally returns from his fourth tour of duty and has clearly come back a (mildly) damaged man, unable to connect with his family, paranoid, and ready to take violent action in a moment’s notice.

Naturally, this too, is something the film chooses not to dwell upon terribly much. He eventually speaks to a therapist, who advises him to go and aid other, far more physically and emotionally stricken veterans and he and his family move back down to Texas, which seems to put him back in the picture of health in virtually no time. The film’s suggestion is that Kyle is not so deeply and badly damaged because of his superior moral fiber — he didn’t just think he was doing the right thing, he felt his correctness burning in the core of his being — and, in keeping with the perfect soldier treatment, even the horrors of PTSD become just one more minor obstacle for his celebration.

This is to take nothing away from the main source of the film’s appeal, which is the generous and unflinching work put in by Cooper, who seems to have breathed the character into his very DNA. Like George Clooney, Cooper has always been able to win over his roles with his natural charm, but here, he puts it in service to a far more impressive portrait. Even if the film, like his fellow soldiers, continually wants to shine the medals of “the Legend” to a gleaming polish, Cooper downplays his character’s ego. He never wants to be above the grunts working the far more dangerous door-to-door missions, which is why he constantly volunteers to work with them, sharing the risk and in the process, offering them some of the best practices gleaned from his superior training as a SEAL.

Cooper has never been better, but one wishes the filmmakers could have ratcheted down the churning apparatus of Kyle’s constant lionization and taken their cues from the apparent humility of the man himself — even if his as-told-to memoir is being strongly questioned in the wake of the film’s release — and been brave enough to show an inkling of the complexity involved in a military-trained, highly decorated professional assassin coming home to lead a normal life, rather than place him on a raging bonfire of martyrdom upon which one imagines he never would have signed off.

Film Review: BIRDMAN

Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Score: 7.7

When filmmakers make movies about theater, its generally to deconstruct the inherent artifice in the form, taking the audience backstage with gloomy actors peering into grungy mirrors, and high-strung directors having to cope with every conceivable kind of roadblock on their way to realizing their once-beautiful artistic vision (and to be fair, most movies about movie-making are very often depicted in the exact same way, only with much bigger crews and even more inflated egos). In this, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film more or less follows suit, but whereas most of these dramas exist almost solely to decry the difficulty of cooperative art, this film also allows for the sublime payoff of such an endeavor, even if that payoff involves one’s literally giving everything they have in order to achieve it.

Iñárritu has always been a bit of a wunderkind in his technical proficiency, not unlike his fellow Mexican auteur, Alfonzo Cuarón. But whereas with some of his early work, such as 21 Grams, that technique served to mask some of the film’s other shortcomings and pretensions, here, with a camera that sweeps and swoops on a never-ending steady-cam track, swinging down one tight, dimly lit corridor backstage or another in search of the character significant to that particular scene, it feels much more organic. It plays as a single, connected shot — though, as there are identifiable segue points and time jumps, Iñárritu isn’t trying to baffle us with his cinematic slight-of-hand, that’s not at all his point. With this film, as with his previous masterpiece Biutiful, Iñárritu has managed to incorporate his laudable technique with his artistic vision, putting the one in service to the other, and not the other way around.

We first meet Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) in his underwear, floating gently over the floor of his dressing room in a state of calm meditation. This is not to last. A former big name Hollywood actor whose major claim to fame was a series of “Birdman” superhero films in the late ’80s (obviously, much like Keaton himself), before falling into complete obscurity and financial collapse, Riggan has instead poured himself into a Broadway adaptation of the revered Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” A complete labor of love, Riggan, who wrote the play, is also directing and starring in it, with the help of his producer/lawyer Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), and his just out of rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who’s working as his assistant. His Zen calm is interrupted first by Sam, and then his Birdman inner voice, a gravelly scold who discounts everything he’s done save his superhero character, and pushes him to an insecure frenzy.

When one of his lead actors (Bill Camp) gets unexpectedly stricken from the production the day before previews are meant to begin, Riggan takes the opportunity to bring in a big name, high wattage replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), with the help of Shiner’s current girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), another of the production’s principles. Shiner brings a keen, artistic intensity — while also sparking tremendous interest from the theater-going public in the form of advance ticket sales — but he’s also enormously destructive and irresponsible, a Faustian bargain Riggan has no choice but to accept, under the dire financial circumstances.

There are other complications, of course, including the possible pregnancy of Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the other principle actress and his secret paramour, and the increasing flirtation between Shiner and Sam, a young woman whose hold on her sobriety is as much on the precipice as her tendency to sit up high on the edge of the theater roof looking up at the city lights.

In his best work, Iñárritu is able to pack his narratives with many seemingly disparate elements crashing together — Biutiful involved not only a clairvoyant dying of cancer with young children, and an estranged, clinically insane wife, but also an illegal immigrant black market operation that leads to a horrific and entirely avoidable tragedy — sparking off one another and somehow coalescing into an artistic whole by the close. He spikes his work with a liberal dose of what we might call magic realism (in one sequence, shortly before opening night, Riggan literally flies up into the air and swoops around the city in a joyous epiphany), but without allowing the grittier aspect of his character arcs to get swept up in the deus ex machina of enchantment and mysticism. Instead, they are immersed just enough in the recognizable real world as to have a profound effect on his protagonists. Magic might occur in their day-to-day lives, but it’s not enough to save them from their fates.

He is also adept at drawing brave and brilliant performances from his actors. This is an obvious showcase for Keaton, a performer given to high-energy, off-kilter beats, here playing what might somewhat uncharitably be referred to as an autobiographical role, but Norton (an actor whom I find myself always thrilled to see on screen, as if a talented, Brando-like recluse only deigning to perform when mood strikes) is also excellent. Shiner is a savant on stage — he learns the lines to the play somehow in the blink of an eye — constantly pushing his fellow cast members into an integral honesty on stage, but off of it, he’s anything but. The rest of his life is a series of irresponsible half-truths and misplaced aggressions, and Norton, who still bears the stigma of being a difficult and demanding type of actor, has a line of hard-earned empathy that bleeds from his pores like so much CO2.

Given the weight of the material, Iñárritu is still able to keep a light enough touch on the material that many of the sequences crackle with humor amongst the pathos (a scene in which Riggan gets locked outside the theater during a performance and has to circle around Times Square in his underwear is like something out of Noises Off). Theater is an insane endeavor, of course, impossible to achieve and vexing in every possible way. But somehow, some way, when everything is just so, and the meld of audience and performer is near seamless, it can still all be worth it.

Film Review: Whiplash

Dir. Damien Chazelle
Score: 8.3

I had a conversation about this film before I got to see it with a friend of mine who couldn’t understand how a movie about a gifted student in a prestigious music school could offer much in the way of drama beyond that of Fame, or its ilk; a schmaltzy ode to the power of young-person artistic desire. But then, I very much doubt she was imagining a music professor screaming “I will fuck you like a pig!” at one of his utterly cowed students, either.

Damien Chazelle’s second feature is a stunning film filled with emotional sweep and poignancy, and best of all, the ambiguousness of its two main protagonists. It’s not a facile film coming to simple conclusions about its subject matter. Like its grand antagonist, the hard-driving, abusive jazz teacher Terence Sterling (J.K. Simmons), the film offers a sharply focused array of possibilities, allowing you to take away what you will, but not before drawing more than a little blood: Most of which shed by Andrew (Miles Teller), an auspicious young drummer in his first year at the (fictitious) Schaffer School of Music in New York.

Besotted by jazz greats like Buddy Guy and James Jones, Andrew assumes his time will surely come, especially after a chance meeting with the legendary Sterling one evening in his practice studio. When Sterling then invites him to join his studio Jazz band after a fast audition, Andrew imagines how easy it will be to wow him with his technique and chops. Only that’s not how it works for Sterling. Arriving at precisely 9:00 AM, with the other members, having nervously tuned and prepped themselves, standing at rapt attention, their faces pointed to floor, it quickly becomes clear Andrew is in no way prepared for the unconscionably demanding Sterling, who screams him into tears at their first session, a moment that earns him considerably more chagrin (“Oh, my dear God — are you one of those single tear people?” Fletcher asks incredulously).

Making Fletcher even more of a monster, he tears the boy apart by first setting him up, talking with him gently during the pre-practice warm-up, and getting the naïve Andrew to open up about his home life, including his writer father (Paul Reiser), who has had a limited career, and an absent mother who left him when he was a baby. It takes no time at all for Sterling to use this information against him during one of his tirades, blaming Andrew’s lack of precise timing as a result of having a talentless hack for a father and a mother who couldn’t wait to leave him.

In a relatively short period of time Andrew learns the only way he can survive Sterling’s onslaught and achieve his goal of being “one of the greats” is to pay for it not just in sweat and blood — though both flow freely during his grueling practice sessions — but to sublimate everything else in his life, including a fledgling romance with a sweet-faced Fordham co-ed (Melissa Benoist) — to his artistic mandate. Under constant stress and scrutiny by the indefatigable Sterling, and facing other challengers for the core chair from other players, Andrew eventually works himself up into such a lather he crawls out from the wreckage of a massive car accident and starts running down the street with his stick bag in tow in order to make a competition on time.

The film is impeccably shot and brilliantly acted, but what really sets it into rarefied air is the way it quickly shifts our sympathies back and forth between the two figures: Andrew, who starts out sweet-faced and cherubic, quickly learns to be every bit as ruthlessly competitive and unlikable as his teacher, eschewing any kind of socializing for his drumming obsession; while Sterling, the cruel taskmaster, starts proving a certain method to his madness, offering a philosophic bent on the nature of greatness and how one might be able to tap into it only if you pour everything you have into what you do.

By the film’s thrilling conclusion — let’s just say it involves a wild solo in front of a Lincoln Center audience with both men glaring daggers at one another — you switch sides back and forth as if watching a tennis contest at center court. Is Sterling a savagely bitter and intense bully, who twists everyone to bend to his incorrigible will, or is he simply a realist, pushing his students beyond what they think they can do for the soaring possibility of their talent? Chazelle’s excellent screenplay allows for both interpretations to be equally true, his vision enhanced greatly by the riveting performance of his two leads. It’s a virtuoso effort from a relatively obscure young filmmaker, but after his film’s incredible showing at Sundance (where it won both the critical jury and audience prizes), he will likely not be underestimated again.

Film Review: Tracks

Dir. John Curran
Score: 6.1

The thing about doing something extraordinary is it’s going to sound utterly unreasonable at first. Back in 1977, when Robyn Davidson, a young, callow Aussie woman with a penchant for animals and getting away from clutter, decided to solo hike from deep in the Australia desert all the way to the coast — a distance of some 1700 miles — with only the company of a group of camels to carry her gear and her trusty black Labrador to accompany her, it was seen as the kind of brainless lark a young person decides upon without regarding any of the consequences. But Robyn Davidson was no ordinary explorer.

As played by Mia Wasikowska, she’s sturdy, stubborn, and above all other things, undeterred by anyone else’s expectation of her limitations. Holing up in a deserted shack on the edge of the desert town she intends to embark from, she learns about working with camels and training them for many long months with local camel trainers, and when a group of friends come by for a night of revelry during her preparations, she’s lucky enough to meet Rick Smolan (Adam Driver, whom has now released a mind-boggling five films in 2014 alone — the man must not sleep), a photographer for National Geographic, as it happens, whom he puts her in contact with to sponsor the story.

And so it is, some weeks later, with camels in tow, and a National Geographic grant to fund her, Davidson bids adieu to the remaining members of her family — her mother, we are eventually told, hung herself when Robyn was still quite young — and starts off on what will come to be a nine-month journey.

With Rick popping in every few weeks to shoot her expedition for the magazine, Robyn makes her way across sacred aboriginal land with the aid of a kindly village elder (Roly Mintuma), endures a tragic loss, becomes completely sun-drenched and loses her bearings, and eventually encounters numerous tourists on buses and squadrons of journalists after her quest grows into both national and international news.

She also seems to encounter a steady stream of truly decent and caring people, in fact, as the film would have it, with Robyn’s strong desire to keep planning to a bare minimum and rely instead upon the kindness of strangers, she essentially does exactly that and seems to suffer absolutely no negative repercussions for her lack of forethought. She’s constantly getting bailed out, if not by the affable Smolan — whom, after one romantic evening encounter, becomes besotted by her — then by the few kindly people, both Aboriginal and non-native, she meets along the way. Naturally, she suffers a fair amount as well, but considering the circumstances, not nearly as much as she could have.

In fact, but for the slow pace and gritty naturalism of the film — there is much in the way of realistically harsh animal treatment and countless shots of the Outback itself, ineffable and pitiless — it could make a fine Disney treatment whose theme would revolve around one young woman overcoming terrific odds and the indomitable human spirit.

Which naturally leads to the film’s central issue: It doesn’t really have terribly much to say, either about Robyn, the Outback, or the human spirit. Curran dutifully follows her trail, documenting many of the incidents listed in her book of the same name, but as the film neither adds dramatic swirls, nor insightful meditation — its quite happy to leave the taciturn Robyn as a young, sun-blanched cypher; whatever she’s getting out of the experience remains either on the surface or largely unexplored — it doesn’t actually have all that much to do. Lip service is placed on giving us a psychological context for Robyn’s trajectory (the death of her mother and subsequent loss of her childhood dog, as her father had to move her away to live with an aunt), but it still doesn’t give us terribly much with which to work.

Given the lack of dramatic arc, Curran and DP Mandy Walker resort to countless artful shots of the landscape under Robyn’s feet and all around her. It’s a fair argument; it so happens that this part of the Aussie Outback is wondrous and varied, from scrub desert to large red cliffs, to the pure sandy white of the dunes leading up to the Indian Ocean, but with much less else to offer beyond its limited premise, the film never rises much beyond a simple travelogue, true to its roots as a National Geographic article, but with the sinking sense that you’d probably be better off just reading the original.

Film Review: This Is Where I Leave You

Dir. Shawn Levy
Score: 3.8

God lament the Hollywood family ensemble. Of late, these films seem to take one of two divergent paths: Extreme melodrama, bordering on pathological (August: Osage County); or weak-minded, simpering comedies, which strive to be equal parts mirthful and heart-felt. Shawn Levy’s limp dramedy is clearly in the latter category, pulling together a bunch of wacky siblings along with their outspoken mother, to sit Shiva for their dearly departed father for the requisite seven days. Such is the nature of this film that only two of the sibs even seem remotely like they could be related, and all their accumulated emotional baggage gets washed away in a giant wave of well-meaning platitudes. Wade through this muck at your own peril.

As typical of the genre, the filmmakers have at least cobbled together an impressive cast. There’s Jason Bateman as Judd, in the kind of role he has perfected over the years: a peace-keeping middle brother who tries desperately to keep his more wild sibs in check as they rail and fight and crash against each other. He also may still be harboring longings towards a beautiful childhood friend, Penny (Rose Byrne), who’s living in the area. There’s Tina Fey, playing Wendy, the lone sister in a squadron of boys, a mother of two young children, a wife to a flatly unemotional type-A workaholic (Aaron Lazar), who has exactly one scene where his phone isn’t pressed to his ear.

There’s also Paul (Corey Stoll), the fiery oldest brother, whose wife (Kathryn Hahn) and he can’t conceive a child, despite their ever more desperate attempts. This leaves Phillip (Adam Driver) as the young wildcard brother, who shows up for his father’s funeral late, careening down the cemetery road in a black Porsche, blaring out dance music, with his much older former therapist (Connie Nielson) in tow as his new near-fiancé. And holding the whole nutty clan together, Hillary (Jane Fonda), the author of a popular tell-all memoir about the raising of her family, and who has a propensity to speak openly about her late husband’s sexual prowess in unconventional settings because her character needed something to do.

Naturally, everyone has a problem at the beginning of the film: Judd has just found out his wife has been sleeping with his boss, the tiresome radio blowhard Wade (Dax Shepard); Wendy has a contemptible husband and a still-yearning love for Horry (Timothy Olyphant), their across-the-street neighbor, permanently brain damaged after a car accident back when they were madly in love as teenagers; Paul has infertility issues; Phillip sleeps with everything that moves, and so on. Just as naturally, each and every one of these matters is addressed and brought to a close, ad nauseum, by the end of film in a series of ever-more unendurable scenes of denouement. Director Levy working from a script by Jonathan Tropper, based upon his own novel, is determined to leave no stone unturned, and no ham-handed symbol not fully realized by the closing credits.

It’s the kind of film that inexplicably keeps the candles on a birthday cake perfectly alight despite being whisked all across a large apartment until such time as the man holding the cake — in this case Judd, who has walked in on his wife and boss physically bonding in his marriage bed — sees fit to dutifully blow them as a last paean to his eviscerated marriage. And that’s not even the worst the film manages to conjure up: In the course of things, we’re treated to an impressive array of totally hackneyed symbols and totems. Judd, ever risk-averse, laments that he’s never swerved off the interstate to head up north to Maine, even though he’s often wanted to try it (and when this moment does indeed come to pass — and God knows, it’s coming — the interstate signs have been changed to read “New York” and “Maine” as your directional options, just to hammer the incredibly obvious point home with one last suplex); the house has a faulty fuse box that serves as a kind of magic conduit between Judd and his dead father, who insisted on doing all the electrical wiring himself.

Even if strong casting is the one thing the film firmly establishes for itself, you have to question some of the production’s tactics. The siblings bear no resemblance to one another, in their physical nature as well as their emotional dealings. Tina Fey, while a phenomenally gifted comic writer and limited performer, still isn’t, technically, an actress, so giving her a deeply emotional roll that forces her to emote through several tearful scenes is absolutely not playing to her strength. Nor is giving Olyphant, a handsome, charismatic man given to quick deadpans and jolting energy, the thankless roll of emotional mascot, the one who suffers irrevocable loss and still can’t remember what to do with the wrench he just got out of the toolbox.

In fact, as derided as the aforementioned August film might have been, I would personally take its take-no-prisoners venom and family vitriol over this kind of simple-minded “Modern Family” style pabulum in a trice. Neither one is particularly much good, but at least one isn’t insulting your intelligence with the most blandly uplifting possible outcome in every scenario, all while “challenging” its main protagonist to change up his game and avoid the too obvious and safe approach to life. Of the two, I’ll gladly take the film that (at least up to its dreadful, tacked-on ending) stuck to its formidable guns and at least attempted to practice what it preached.