DADDY’S DEAD, YOU KNOW…AND WON’T LET US FORGET IT: Movie reviews of This Is Where I Leave You, My Old Lady and The Skeleton Twins by Howard Casner

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this-is-where-i-leave-youGosh darn, daddy’s seem to be dropping like flies this month. Three movies have opened lately in which the pater familias is no longer in the picture. Not only that, it’s these fathers that often seem to be getting the brunt of the blame for the way their kids have turned out.

I guess it’s kind of convenient for all the characters involved, then, that the man from whose loins they were loosed is no longer around to defend himself.

But, you know, whatever, I guess. At any rate, he’s dead, dead, dead. And just won’t let us forget it.


In the first film, a group of siblings, other family flotsam and jetsam, and/or various sexual partners, all of whom seem to detest each other, gather for the death of their progenitor, staying on long after the funeral festivities have finished.


No, I’m not talking August: Osage County. I’m talking about This Is Where I Leave You, the new dysfunctional family comedy written, from his book, by Jonathan Tripper (he is best known for writing the mini-series Banshee) and directed by Shawn Levy (overseer of such comedies as Night of the Museum and Real Steel—was that last a comedy? I don’t remember).


The two movies are, in many ways, quite different. But what I remember most about watching the newest one is trying to figure out which of the two I liked least.


Oh, hell, I’ll go with August… since it took itself a lot more seriously.


This Is Where I Leave You, or as I’m so tempted to call it, the latest attempt for Jason Bateman to make himself into a leading man, has for its protagonist that former star of Arrested Development.


I’m not convinced he’s a good fit for the story. Bateman, of late, from my personal perspective, found his true forte in playing slightly to slightly more sleazy characters in supporting roles, as in Up in the Air and State of Play (he gave the best performance in that latter film).


And, I do have to say, even in roles that might not be the best for him, like here, he shows crack comic timing in how he delivers his lines (I mean, he can be one smooth operator).


But so far, whenever he moves center stage, he just doesn’t seem to have the right persona to pull it off, even when the central character is pure sleaze, as in Bad Words.


At the same time, it could be he just hasn’t found that one part that can help define him and his talent on screen.


In This Is Where I Leave You, he is supposed to be the “normal” character, the still point among the chaotic turning world. But he never quite comes across that way. Rather he feels a bit more than smug and superior with the result that he feels just a bit too smarmy for the role’s good.


In his defense, though, I’m not sure his difficulty in really taking over the part is completely his fault. He’s hampered by a screenplay in which the way everyone talks about him is not really the way he acts.


The one way most of the others describe him is that he’s distant and has checked out of his marriage and has cut himself off emotionally. But in the opening scene, he has bought his wife a birthday cake and is coming home early to celebrate as a surprise.


I don’t think you can have it both ways. Either he’s checked out or he’s so invested in his relationship that he goes to an extreme to connect emotionally with his wife.


People also hint that he gave up and leads a boring life and never fulfilled his potential. The problem is that first, they never let us know exactly what his potential was. But he’s also the producer for a show starring a very successful radio personality. This is a far more interesting and exciting job that most of my friends have. We should all have failed in our potential this successfully.


And the opening scene really works against him.   He comes into the office so friendly and nice to everybody you just want to smack him one. And he comes home early to one of the biggest clichés in movie history, so clichéd that it’s almost impossible to feel sorry for him. Instead, you’re kind of smirking in that you kind of feel he kind of got what he deserves.


(You would think that characters in films would have seen enough movies to know that the last thing you do is come home early and surprise your spouse—I mean, I’m not trying to blame the victim here, or anything, but…c’mon).


But once all that’s over and done with, we get down to the gist of the story. The death of his father and his having to get together with siblings whom he obviously cannot stand any more than they can stand him.


But here, I have to say, Tripper has come up with a clever variation on the theme. One of the issues I had with August: Osage County is that I never really believed that these characters, who had never stuck around before, would now suddenly (and very conveniently for the story) go out of their way to, well…stick around.


To Tripper’s credit, he’s come up with an elegant solution. The matriarch of the family (Jane Fonda, yes, that Jane Fonda, who comes across as struggling to find some role worthy of her talent now that she’s reentered the acting world) informs them that their father’s final wish was that they should sit shiva.


This is great. This is wonderful. What a brilliant way to keep a bunch of siblings who still treat each other with the maturity of petty teens and spoiled brats in one location.


And it’s fantastic.


That is, until the movie, almost immediately, drops the premise.


It’s not long before the various members break said shiva, leaving the house and pursuing their own agendas at the drop of a whimsical hat.


So, in other words, the characters only sit shiva until the movie decides it’s not convenient for them to sit shiva, i.e., it sets up a set of rules and then immediately breaks them (it’s like playing Monopoly and after a couple of rounds, someone starts playing by the rules of Sorry!, and no one objects).


And thus a promising premise goes splat and never really recovers.


The cast is filled with tons of familiar faces from various TV shows, including Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Katherine Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Debra Monk, Dax Shepard, Rose Byrne and Adam Driver from 30 Rock, House of Cards, Parks and Recreation, Nashville, Justified, Reckless, Parenthood, Damages and Girls respectively.


I assume the movie was made over summer hiatus.


No one is bad, but no one is that interesting either. Or, a better way to phrase it, how you react to them or what you think of their acting will probably depend on what you think of the actor (for my money, Adam Driver wins hands down; what is it about this guy with non-traditional looks and crack comic timing that is so damn sexy—oh, and he’s also a good actor; meanwhile, Olyphant is the most wasted).


There’s a surprise at the end, but it’s not that shocking and actually rather ho-hum and so 1990’s.


And the whole thing finales with a rosy glow as all the characters, who earlier couldn’t stand one another, having come together in various kumbaya moments throughout the film that are as sentimental and unconvincing as the song suggests.


I mean it’s very clear early on why no one wanted to stick around once their dad’s body was in the cold, grey ground. So their turn around at the end seems to grow out of formula and box office receipts rather than a true dramatization of the characters relationships.


It’s all a bit fake, almost as fake as Fonda’s character’s fake boobs—except her fake boobs work better.


At the same time, it seems to have worked. It’s a huge hit in the theaters.


my-old-lady-kline-smithMy Old Lady is a story that revolves around a peculiarly French institution (isn’t it interesting how those words are so often used together), that of viager. This is a situation in which one buys an apartment from its owner, but the original owner now lives in the apartment until they die. The added difficulty here for the new owner is that they actually pay rent to the person staying there.


As one character says in the movie, it’s a gamble. If they die really quick, you got yourself a deal. If they linger on as long as Methuselah, you are stuck with one heck of a white elephant.


In My Old Lady, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline—the character’s name is ironic, I suppose, since he doesn’t have any) inherits from his rotter of a father an apartment. Coming to Paris thinking he has finally gotten something from his distant dad that is actually worth something, he discovers that he actually has an apartment that really won’t be his until the present occupant passes on.


Not only that, he has to pay the occupant 2,500 Euros a month.


And not only not only that, the occupant, Mathilda Girard, is played by Maggie Smith, which means the character will probably outlive the new owner.


This is actually a fun and clever idea for a situation. The possibilities, as they say (whoever they are), are boundless.


Until (yes, there’s an until), like the shiva approach used in This Is Where I Leave You, it’s basically dropped as the driving force of the movie almost as soon as it is introduced.


But as they might parlez vous in France, c’est la vie. Or is it quell dommage. Or maybe tant pis.


I mean, it does start out rather promising with Mathias being informed of what is going on and his visiting a realtor and then his stealing furniture from the place to sell in order to get money.


However, rather than keep on in this direction and really deal with the amusing possibilities of trying to resolve the viager situation while further exploring this rather sleazy, grifter personality in the part of Mathias, the story changes horses and instead we get Mathias stϋrm and dranging, and stϋrm and dranging, and stϋrm and dranging, and then stϋrm and dranging some more about how awful a parent his father was.


(Well, if truth be told and in Mathias’s defense, his dad was a pretty terrible excuse for a human being).


And when he’s not stϋrm and dranging about it, then Mathilda’s daughter Chloe (Kirstin Scott Thomas) takes over and stϋrm and drangs in his place.


I mean, there sure is a lot of stϋrm and dranging going on here.


Again, in their defense, Mathias’s father was pretty awful. And Mathilda was not much better (she’s just managed to create a cocoon of illusion in which she has found a way to make herself guiltless of everything that has happened when, in many ways, she’s the worst of them all).


But the back story, all of which happens off screen and years before, seems a bit too familiar and never really catches fire.


And it probably doesn’t help that Mathias is something of an idiot who does little but stay an idiot for much of the story. I think I can buy the idea that he pig in a poked the contents of his father’s will without finding out what he was really getting into (it’s presented as resulting from Mathias not being able to understand French).


But once in Paris, he doesn’t consult a lawyer nor ask to look at the contents of the will. And when he is offered nine million Euros for the apartment, he balks. No, really, he balks. (And that’s about eleven million in dollars U.S.)


He’s not just a failed writer, he apparently never showed one whiff of possible success (no explanation or exploration is given to this) and he’s had three wives (what’s surprising is not that he hasn’t been able to stay married, but that anyone would have married him in the first place).


There’s also an odd through line where Mathias and Chloe go to bed together. Mathias knows they might be brother and sister, but for some reason fails to inform her of this (don’t you hate when that happens). I do agree with Mathilda later on that, what’s the big deal, it’s not like they can have children. But I still believe that Chloe probably should have been let in on it just a bit sooner.


I mean, just saying.


The drama is sort of all over the place with such clunky turns as Chloe not wanting the place sold so it can’t be turned into a hotel and be remodeled so it’s no longer aesthetically in tune with the rest of the neighborhood. Okay, fine. But this comes out of nowhere and she never really shows that much of an interest in architecture anywhere else in the film.


But again, c’est la vie as they say France. Or is it quell dommage. Or maybe tant pis.

However, don’t let it worry you. In the end, formula wins out and everything is resolved and everyone ends up happily ever after, including a love story that seems, shall we say, a bit on the unconvincing side.


The acting gets the job done, though the native French actors are the most successful with Dominique Pinon, who I first saw in 1981 in Diva and has been in such movies as Amelie and Delicatessen and Micmacs, stealing the scenes he’s in.


Thomas comes off the weakest, but once again Hamilton Berger, in her defense, her character is more than a bit underdeveloped and just seems along for the ride.


Kline does more with this part that it deserves, while Smith is just fine playing Maggie Smith.


The movie is directed and adapted (from his play) by Israel Horovitz, who has been with us since his one act play The Indian Wants the Bronx opened in 1968 (which introduced the world to Al Pacino). It’s his first foray as director, but has written such screenplays as Author! Author! and James Dean.


Ah, well. C’est la vie. Or is it quell dommage. Or maybe tant pis,


Whichever phrase you chose, the movie just doesn’t really work.


skeletontwinsmain900In The Skeleton Twins, the new seriously serious comedy written by Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson and directed by Johnson, brother and sister act, Milo and Maggie, are in a bit of a crisis. They’re young. They’re in love. They want to kill themselves.


In fact, suicide is their method of choice to resolve their problems.


In the opening scene, Milo tries to off himself with a razor and bathtub. Meanwhile, Maggie meditates on taking a few too many pills when she gets a call from her brother’s hospital that he has been admitted. So she postpones her attempt, flies out to L.A. and brings Milo back for a stay.


The Skeleton Twins is a nice, sweet and at times moving movie. It has its moments and it’s a solid enough piece of writing and directing.


But it never really rises above that.


There are several reasons for this. But the main one is that as much as I wanted to really empathize with Milo and Maggie’s situation, in both cases their immediate problems were not particularly original or as compelling as one might want.


Milo is a failed actor whose latest boyfriend has left him. Maggie doesn’t want to have a child, though her incredibly nice husband Lance (Luke Wilson, and I mean incredibly nice…no, I don’t think you’re getting me here, he is increeeeeeeeeedibly nice) feels his biological clock ticking (Maggie is taking the pill in private).


The additional problem here is that in both cases, neither the failed acting career nor the not wanting to have a baby, are the characters’ real problems.


Both are depressives. And I don’t mean they just get sad every once in a while. This is obviously a genetic issue that is demonstrated not just by the symptoms they both show, but in the revelation that their father killed himself by jumping off a bridge.

So instead of really dealing with the real cause of the characters’ problems, the writers focus on some red herrings.


Because there is no way you will ever convince me that if Milo was a successful actor with a loving boyfriend and Maggie was in a relationship with someone she loved who didn’t want to have kids, they wouldn’t both still be suicidal in nature.


Again, there are no real surprises in the movie. It’s a pretty standard set of tropes that you’ve seen many times before. And it has a shoddy ending between Milo, Maggie and a swimming pool that is not remotely convincing.


And when the big revelation comes as to why Milo and Maggie, who use to be inseparable, are now extremely separable and find it hard to be together, you sort of go, wait, was that the reason? Did we just find out what the main cause of the two’s difficult relationship is? I think so, but I’m not quite sure. Yeah, I guess that has to be it.


The only real surprise and unexpected revelation is how incredibly good both Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are. They so fully invest themselves in their characters, downplaying their natural comic personas, they deliver two incredibly heartfelt performances.


Hader is especially fine. Every line reading, every centimeter of posture, every look from his eyes, is so startling right, it’s as if he has completely disappeared into his role.


And in both actors, not a trace of Saturday Night Live can be detected.


With Joanna Gleason as their distant mother. I still remember seeing her as the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods and Woody Allen’s not so better half in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Her scenes are the most successful. When it is revealed why she has come by, it’s absolutely heartbreaking and goes a long way to explaining why the twins are the way they are.



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