Director: Shawn Levy
Starring: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Dax Sheperd, Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn, Abigail Spencer, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schwartz
I must admit that I have a soft spot for these types of family ensemble stories. Two films in my top ten, American Beauty and The Ice Storm, both center on dysfunctional families. This is Where I Leave You takes a lighter approach than both of those films. It’s even lighter than last year’s August: Osage County, which has a similar premise. For Judd Altman (Bateman), when it rains it pours. Around the same time he walks in on his wife (Spencer) sleeping with his boss (Shepard), he gets a phone call from his sister Wendy (Fey) who breaks the news that their father has died.
When the entire Altman clan arrives for the funeral, their mother Hillary (Fonda) informs her four children that their father’s dying wish was for all of them to gather under one room to sit shiva, the Jewish tradition where friends and relatives gather for seven days to celebrate the deceased. Judd isn’t the only Altman going through a personal crisis. Wendy’s marriage is on the rocks as her husband is the work-obsessed always on the phone type. Judd's older brother Paul (Stoll) and his wife (Hahn) are having fertility problems. His younger brother Philip (Driver) is the immature one who can’t seem to grow up. Philip is also dating a psychiatrist (Britton) who is old enough to pass for his mom. The seven days of mourning provides them all the opportune time to deal with their issues as returning home always seems to be that place to confront your past and deal with the present.
The film is based on the popular book by Jonathan Tropper. Fans of the book should be relieved that this is a faithful adaptation as he also wrote the screenplay. It’s almost a little too faithful. The book has numerous characters as each family member has their own world and problems that they are coming from plus people from their childhood that re-enter their lives. Some of the minor characters don’t work as well for the film as they do for the book due to the pacing of the film and overall narrative. Timothy Olyphant’s Horry is a challenging character that works better in the book. The same goes for Rose Byrne’s Penny who was Judd’s childhood flame. Olyphant and Byrne make the most out of their limited screen time, but under two other actors these characters would have been completely forgettable.
The dynamic cast was another big seller for me on why this family seems charming and relatable. The balance between both the comedy and drama is vital to this story. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night) wisely chose actors that can not only play the comedic tone Tropper sets up but can also tap into the serious sides of each family member. Bateman, Fey, Driver, Stoll, Britton, Olyphant, and Shepard are all known for their television work, so it’s fun to watch them step outside of those roles that we are so used to seeing them play on a weekly basis. This is probably the most serious we have seen Tina Fey onscreen as she typically sticks to broad comedies like 30 Rock or Saturday Night Live. I’ve mentioned the delightful Kathryn Hahn in previous reviews. As Corey Stoll’s wife, she gets to be her standard quirky self but has some touching moments when it comes to her character’s infertility. The real standout of the cast is Adam Driver (Girls, Inside Llewyn Davis). Even though he has it a bit easy as his character is the goofball that gets to have the most fun, he really comes alive and is downright hysterical in every scene. Most of the time he's up to his old tricks, but Driver also brings out that internal side of Phillip that has strong intentions of proving he isn’t just some screw up.
Tropper’s ideas of finding the humor in tragedy ring loud and clear. I guess I hone in on this idea as it is also something I live by. Many of our characters are going through serious issues, but their moments of clarity come when humor is brought in. There were multiple times throughout the movie where the audience was laughing so hard I missed some of the dialogue that followed. There may be a dysfunctional aspect about the Altmans, but they are not as over-the-top and crazy like we have seen in many of these types of movies. The humor keeps it grounded in reality without taking it to a satirical or theatrical level.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? These characters and this idea of coming home to face and resolve your problems should resonate with moviegoers.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS