With Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Corey Stoll. Written by Jonathan Tropper. Directed by Shawn Levy. Rated R for language, sexual content and some drug use. 103 minutes.
THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is a dysfunctional family comedy/drama that turns out to have a heart. It begins with the death of the Altman family patriarch, followed by the announcement by his widow Hilary (Jane Fonda) that his dying wish was that she and his four adult children sit shiva for him. Shiva is the Jewish mourning ritual in which the mourners sit at home and are tended to and comforted by friends and family.
What’s unusual about them observing this religious ritual is that the late Altman was an atheist and Hilary isn’t Jewish. The children, however, seem to have been raised as Jews and reluctantly comply with their late father’s wishes. Naturally, they are all a mess. Judd (Jason Bateman) has just discovered his wife (Rose Byrne) in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard). Wendy (Tina Fey) has two children and a husband who can’t neglect business even at the funeral. Paul (Corey Stoll) runs the family business and has been struggling with his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) to reproduce. Phillip (Adam Driver) is the baby and ne’er-do-well who is dating his wealthy–and much older–therapist Tracy (Connie Britton).
In many ways, we’ve seen this story many times before: dysfunctional siblings and parents forced by circumstances to be together and deal with their problems and each other. However, director Shawn Levy and writer Jonathan Tropper (adapting his own novel) figured out that this only works if we actually care about the characters. As the story progresses, we keep seeing sides of them that surprise us and demonstrate that humans are quirky beings. A character who seems like a jerk shows himself to be self-aware. Another who appears empathetic suddenly turns insensitive.
Judd, who is our anchor in these proceedings, finds that life can get more complicated than he imagined after a lifetime of avoiding risks. The lessons learned–the whole point of these kinds of stories–don’t come easily or neatly. While sometimes going for the cheap laugh (Wendy’s little boy is being potty trained and loves to show off his latest accomplishment) the movie manages to take a mature and knowing look at just messy life can be.
In an ensemble cast this large it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Levy manages to give each of the main characters their due. Jane Fonda gets her best big screen role in decades as the mother who has become a best-selling author writing about the foibles of her children, while Bateman gives a nuanced performance not often in evidence in his film work. Indeed, there’s nary a wrong move among the cast with Fey, Stoll, Shepard, Hahn, and Britton each shining in bigger or smaller roles. Even Ben Schwartz proves multifaceted as the young rabbi who grew up with the Altman kids and bears an unfortunate nickname.
By the time we get to the final revelations and resolutions we have come to know and sympathize with these characters. We’re hoping things will turn out okay for them, but while things have changed for them all during the week-long mourning period, there’s no guarantee that they are able to move forward. Some are, and some aren’t, and the subtlety and sophistication of wrapping up the story without neat resolutions is yet another thing that sets this apart from others in this dysfunctional genre.
“This is Where I Leave You” turns out to be a funny and sometimes moving tale of a mother and her grown brood reassessing their relationships and finding its never too late to reconnect.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.