(This film review of “This is Where I Leave You” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 6 November 2014.)
Directed by Shawn Levy
Written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his novel
Starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard and Jane Fonda
Take one dysfunctional family of adult children, many of whom actively dislike one another. Add a death – say the father. And then force them to spend a week together in the same house in the New York suburbs, on the basis that they all must “sit shiva” – the dad’s dying wish. It’s a recipe for much drama and potential humour; it’s also the plot of “This is Where I Leave You”, a film based on the novel by American-Jewish author Jonathan Tropper.
“But mom’s not even Jewish, and dad was an atheist,” protests Judd Altman (Jason Bateman). No matter; mother Hillary (Jane Fonda, in a rare return to the screen) insists that they follow his wishes. So they settle in for a week of funny bickering and unexpected drama. Jason has recently been cuckolded by his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer), who has been sleeping with his boss at the radio station where he works. Older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) – who once went out with Judd – are desperately trying to have a baby. Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) has a husband so distracted by work that he hardly notices her – and she too has an old boyfriend in town, living across the street and still working in the “Altman Sporting Goods” store that father Mort founded.
And then there’s younger brother Phillip, played by Adam Driver (“Girls”, “Tracks”) – a “cut-up” who has not changed. He’s the immature playboy, fiery, funny and proverbially late – including to his dad’s funeral. He also arrives with an older woman in tow, Tracy (Connie Britton), his former therapist. Tracy in turn is a great fan of “mom” Hillary, who became famous for writing a “tell all” book about her family and her children, entitled “Cradle and All”, which revealed various sexual secrets about her children as they grew up. Resentment still stirs from the experience.
Fortunately for Judd, his old childhood sweetheart Penny (Rose Byrne) is back in “town”. And then there’s the rabbi (Ben Schwartz), an old family friend who has been tormented by the Altman siblings ever since his youth; despite his rabbinic position, some things never change.
It’s quite a set-up, an ensemble cast of mixed characters with interlocking histories in close quarters and forced to come to accommodation with their past anger and present disappointments. Think “Parenthood” mixed with “The Big Chill” and the rarely seen “Eulogy”.
What happens? The adult kids argue, couples split, others get together, all of it proceeding from the (is it particularly American?) notion that the romantic relationship we have at age 20 affects us forever. With one exception, the overladen plot is predictable, with director Shawn Levy (“Date Night”, “Night at the Museum”, “The Internship”) usually telegraphing plot points well in advance.
Fortunately Levy has assembled a wonderful cast, with Jason Bateman the true stand-out. Bateman, particularly known for his role as “Michael Bluth” in the TV series “Arrested Development”, has slowly grown in stature as an actor. Here he is the real star, on screen more than anyone else, and he truly shines. He is the “broken” brother, but also the most mature, the one who through personality, wisdom and caring helps everyone to heal.