A film review by Craig J. Koban September 26, 2014 



2014, R, 103 mins.


Jason Bateman as Judd Altman  /  Tina Fey as Wendy Altman  /  Jane Fonda as Hillary Altman  /  Adam Driver as Phillip Altman  /  Rose Byrne as Penny Moore  /  Corey Stoll as Paul Altman  /  Kathryn Hahn as Alice Altman  /  Abigail Spencer as Quinn Altman  /  Connie Britton as Tracy Sullivan  /  Dax Shepard as Wade Beaufort  /  Debra Monk as Linda Callen  /  Abigail Spencer as Quinn Altman

Directed by Shawn Levy  /  Written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his book

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU does absolutely nothing different than what the countless other estranged family reunion dramedies have done before.  

You know the type of genre I’m talking about: The one involving cranky and irritable siblings – all in stages of a respective mid-life crisis – returning to their childhood home to reconnect with one another and their parents – via a marriage, funeral, etc. – to eventually sort out and deal with all of their nagging insecurities with each other and themselves.  We’ve seen this play out in films as far ranging as THE FAMILY STONE to the more recent AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, which leaves THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU – right from the gate – feeling like it’s on autopilot. 

However, he film – based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Trooper, whom also wrote the screenplay adaptation here – elevates itself over its more tired and overused genre conventions by the sheer strength of its wonderfully assembled cast and how well the script manages to develop a majority of its characters with a surprising depth.  THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU explores a considerable amount of narrative terrain and an awfully large number of characters throughout its running time, but it’s a testament to Trooper’s script that he somehow manages to navigate through it all and creates some semblance of cohesion amidst all of the film’s various parts.  Certainly, many elements in the film don’t work all the time (some of its attempts at broad, farcical comedy fall flat) and some side characters get marginalized in the process, but there’s a healthy enough balance overall between comedy and drama here to make this family clan gathering effort engaging and rarely dull. 

The film deals with the Altman clan, overseen by the family matriarch Hilary (Jane Fonda, still looking impossibly radiant as an old geezer), whose husband has just passed away in Westchester, New York and she now wishes to bring together her sons and daughters to pay last respects towards him by fulfilling his last wish: they must all sit through shiva, a week-long morning ritual for those of the Jewish faith (this is made all the more peculiar seeing as the father was an atheist).  Hilary has always had a tumultuous relationship with her kids, seeing as she exposed many of their childhood and adolescent frailties as a child therapist in her world famous parenting guide “Cradle and All.”   



The kids do indeed return home for shiva, comprised of the eldest son, Paul (Corey Stoll); the middle son, Judd (Jason Bateman); the baby of the family, Phillip (Adam Driver); their sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), and most of them bring either their respective kids and spouses…and/or a serious amount of personal baggage.  Judd has just recently discovered that his wife (Abigail Spencer) has been cheated on him…with his boss.  He sees his return back home to grieve for the loss of his father as a chance to forget about his marital woes, but he soon discovers that most of his siblings have their own share of emotional issues that are brought to the forefront when they all mutually partake in shiva (they're essentially “grounded” at home for the week, as their mother puts it).  While all of them try to reconnect and reconcile with both the past and present – without trying to emotionally and, at times, physically tear each other apart – Judd finds some solace in reconnecting with Penny (Rose Byrne), the proverbial girl that never left town and still has romantic interests in him.  

The film’s epicenter is Judd, and Jason Bateman once again – as he has demonstrated over and over again in a majority of his past film roles – what an unqualified master he is at the art of blending sardonic deadpan wit with an understated and soulful melancholy.  Judd is a broken man facing divorce, unemployment, and reconnecting with a family that's comprised of monumental screw-ups at life in one form or another.  Lesser actors would have played Judd for broad laughs, but Bateman is a far shrewder performer for how he manages to evoke a low-key sadness and uncertainty in the character that helps to humanize and ground him when even the screenplay sometimes falters.  He’s paired inordinately well with Tina Fey, whose dissatisfied and unhappy homemaker wife struggles with her own marriage to a workaholic.  Her terrific scenes opposite of Bateman elevate the film far beyond my expectations of the material, not to mention that she often scores the best laughs of the film, like when she matter-of-factly tells her mother – after she lectures her children on the importance of maintaining the family’s Jewish faith at the funeral – that “we’re sitting on the exact same spot we put our Christmas tree.” 

As for the mother herself, Fonda has not had this much fun with a role in years, and at 76 she still proves that her own sense of playful whimsy has not left her yet.  I also especially liked Adam Driver’s work as the petulant man-child, family black sheep Philip; he has a wickedly enjoyable sarcastic quip for nearly any occasion.  The rest of the cast, though, gets somewhat buried in the performance quartet limelight that Bateman, Fey, Fonda, and Driver generate.  Many of these side characters – as well as their respective others – are more or less reduced to simplistic plot devices to service the needs of the film for comedy or drama.  Phillip’s older (much older) girlfriend (like his mom, also a therapist) Tracy (Connie Britton) never really figures in as a character of any importance, and a subplot involving Wendy’s past with a hunky neighbor that suffers from a brain injury (Timothy Olyphant) never registers with the heart-tugging sentimentality that it thinks it attains.  And for as much as I adore the infectiously sprightly Rose Byrne in just about everything lately, her character exists primarily as a preordained muse to help Judd escape the doldrums of his post-married life. 

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU was directed by Shawn Levy (REAL STEEL, THE PINK PANTHER, and THE INTERNSHIP), which doesn’t inspire huge confidence going in.  He sometimes has this annoying habit of undermining moments of genuine tearful drama with egregiously cheap sight gags (many of which involve Fonda’s mother and her new silicone enhanced breast, or even more involving a toilet trained kid that dutifully poops at will in the most inconvenient places).  Still, I'll concede that Levy deserves props for generating some truly fine performances amidst the film’s schmaltz, not to mention that he allows the film to breathe freely as a potty-mouthed, hard-R rated comedy of family dysfunction, which is refreshing.  Even though THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU hardly reinvents the wheel of its inherent genre, the superlative cast (quarterbacked by the sublimely talented Bateman) gives this otherwise predictable and conventional film an unpredictable – and much needed – dosage of complex dimension and compassion.    

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