This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

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By simply glancing at the star-studded cast of This Is Where I Leave You, featuring an assortment of Hollywood top-draw A-listers, including Jason Bateman, Horrible Bosses (2011), funny-woman Tina Fey, Mean Girls (2004), the legendary and influential Jane Fonda, Barbarella (1968), and Timothy Olyphant, Hitman (2007) — simply naming a few — it’s quite understandable how some might become immensely excited about this film and its limitless promise. However, that excitement may easily fade away when one realizes that the director at the helm of this family-centered comedy-drama is Shawn Levy, best known for decisively mediocre feats, such as Night At The Museum (2006) and The Internship (2013). Surprisingly though, Levy has crafted something tender, witty, intelligent and quite delightful from Jonathan Tropper’s screenplay — adapted from the latter’s own best-selling novel. While the film’s narrative may struggle at certain points, and several of the characters fail to really leap off the screen the way they ought to, This Is Where I Leave You is, without a doubt, Levy’s most engaging, full-bodied effort to date; a rich, bitter, quirky film about love and family that teeters along the thin broken lines, intermingling life and death, with comedy and tragedy.

Meet a family that's just as crazy as yours!
Meet a family that’s just as crazy as yours!

With a relativity strong, hard-hitting opening act, audiences swiftly learn that Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is possibly having the worst year of his life, particularly after learning of his wife, Quinn’s (Abigail Spencer), affair with his scumbag radio-host boss, Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard), discovering the pair in bed together, when arriving home un-expectantly early one afternoon, with a birthday cake to surprise his wife. Following the sudden passing of their father, Judd, and his three siblings — overly driven sister Wendy (Tina Fey), stern older brother, Paul (Corey Stoll), and immature, somewhat insensitive, younger sib Phillip (Adam Driver) — each of them bruised and banged up by their respective adult lives, are forced to return to their childhood home for the funeral. Abiding by their father’s final dying wish, as relayed by their over-sharing mother, Hilary (Jane Fonda), the family — along with an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens — are forced to sit Shiva for seven days — or a week — residing under the same roof together, a time in which secrets are exposed, tensions run high, and love sneaks through amidst all the dishonesty and loss.

The plot of This Is Where I Leave You centers around the grieving Altman family ‘sitting Shiva,’ participating in the Jewish ritual conducted during the first week of mourning after a loved one has passed away. Within this often-difficult time of bereavement, the relatives of the deceased — his or her parents, children, siblings, and spouses — gather daily under the one roof and receive visitors who offer condolences — and often food. It’s a situation riddled with immeasurable potential, and one that could have easily taken the path of high melodrama or descended into outright buffoonery, though Levy and Tropper have clearly gone for something that lives somewhere in-between. During the events that transpire throughout these seven days, audiences are pulled into the Altman’s disordered, rather knotty, lives, particularly as Judd struggles to desperately mourn his father after the implosion of his marriage. We witness the sexual escapades of Paul and his baby-hungry wife, Annie (Kathryn Hahn), Wendy re-connecting with Horry Callen (Timothy Olyphant), the brain-damaged childhood sweetheart she left behind for a loveless marriage to Barry Weissman (Aaron Lazar), and the fragmented siblings rekindling their misplaced kinship; an offbeat scene where the brothers sneak off to get ‘high’ during a service at the synagogue — which aids to reunite the quarreling threesome — stands out as a sure highlight. The final result is a mesh of austere humor and bittersweet tragedy, woven into a tapestry of delight and misery that’s remarkably close to mimicking real life itself.

Is this where I leave you?
Is this where I leave you?

What keep the film’s rations of hardship and comedy from tipping into absurdity are its endearingly real characters. It’s easy to see the wealth of love and resentment that binds the Altman family together, as the siblings argue to the point of bloodshed over who will take over their father’s Sporting Goods business, all-the-while they tease one another with the poker-sharp memories of enforced childhood recollections. But they also let their guards down around one another; Judd discusses his plights and worries with his sister Wendy, perched atop a roof; and the siblings complain about the loss of privacy stemming from their mother’s best-selling novel, concerning their thwarting childhood years, but still find themselves turning to her in moments of deepest grief. ‘You’re idiots,’ Wendy declares at one point to her brothers, ‘But you’re my idiots,’— a sentiment that most would agree applies relatively well to one’s family. Even the supporting characters are mostly well-served by the script, whether it’s widowed next-door neighbor Linda Callen (Debra Monk), mother of Horry and keeper of a secret that will shock the Altman children upon its revelation; or Phillip’s new older-woman fiancée, Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton), a sensual, intelligent therapist who quickly realizes what a big mistake she’s made, falling for Phillip, the Altman family screw-up. It’s also intriguing to note that Quinn isn’t simply written off as an immoral cheating spouse, but someone whose mistakes — though inexcusable — are rooted in as much anguish and heartache as Judd’s, though his are mostly caused by her infidelity.

Unfortunately, not every character in This Is Where I Leave You rings relatively true, or comes across as being convincingly accurate. While Judd freaks out about Quinn’s betrayal, especially when she flings a bombshell at him upon her unexpected arrival at the Altman family home, Judd also draws closer to Penny Moore (Rose Byrne) — the sweet, kooky girl who’s held a torch for him since high school. In a feature bursting with so many quirky-but-realistic characters, each of whom could easily have taken the lead, Penny is a clichéd, offbeat cardboard cutout of a dream girl, chirpily bouncing around, being supposedly insightful and painfully awkward. Rose Byrne, Neighbors (2014), though, tries her absolute best, giving off a frisky chemistry alongside Bateman, but her character feels less like a genuine romantic option than the wishful afterthought of a writer who’s spent considerably more time fleshing out his other chief players.

Family Matters!
Family Matters!

As one would indubitably assume, Levy’s ensemble cast are an absolute delight to watch in action. Leading man Jason Bateman anchors the entire picture with one of his most sensitive performances yet, while still managing to give his co-stars copiousness opportunities to shine. Comedian, Tina Fey’s portrayal of Wendy’s emotionally traumatic relationship with Horry comes off as rather genuine, with guilt stricken Wendy still unable to forgive herself for leaving Horry, while Corey Stoll, Non-Stop (2014), and Adam Driver, What If (2013), round out the Altman quartet with steady, charming performances as the eldest and youngest brothers who merely can’t get along. Jane Fonda is luminous as Hilary Altman, supplying plenty of laughs — sporting a pair of over-sized prosthetic breasts — whilst giving off a remarkable grace, creating the embodiment of a tough, sexually progressive woman with plenty of depth and love for her children.

Resembling a fractured, dysfunctional family at its heart, This Is Where I Leave You is far from perfect. The picture can be formulaic at times — though not as predictable as one might assume — and its characters do occasionally speak or behave in ways that don’t quite ring accurate, taking away some of the flick’s believability. But Levy’s film is ultimately a compassionate, silly, profound, clever and outrageous glance at a family during a time of deep mourning. It finds the hidden joys and awkward sorrow in a group of people who sometimes ‘love’ more than they like one another, serving as a potent reminder that life — amidst the happiness, heartbreak, and everything in between — keeps on going, even in those times when we wish it would simply cease to continue.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

This Is Where I Leave You is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia