Mark Reviews Movies

This Is Where I Leave You


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Shawn Levy

Cast: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Abigail Spencer, Debra Monk, Ben Schwartz, Dax Shepard, Aaron Lazar

MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 9/19/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 18, 2014

"I'm an expert on you," the youngest sibling tells his older sister. That's an equally comforting and frightening truth about family. This Is Where I Leave You understands the dichotomy of family: the security of being in the presence of those who come the closest to truly knowing you and the fear that comes with the same situation.

There's nothing new about this material, which sees a family begrudgingly come together in the aftermath of familial tragedy and watches as they struggle to reacclimate themselves to the old ways of continuously close proximity. In fact, there's a stretch of the film during which we start to feel that this will just be a one-note affair, with Jonathan Tropper's screenplay (adapted from his own novel) trying to force his characters to find ways to prove Tolstoy correct about unhappy families.

Then we realize that it's just the scary part of the familial bond at work. When the film lets us see the other side, it finds a new and, considering the buildup, surprisingly tender outlook on and for its characters.

It begins with an unfortunate chain of events for Judd Altman (Jason Bateman). He returns home early from work to find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) having sex with his boss (Dax Shepard). Divorced and jobless, Judd finds himself depressed and sleeping on a couch in a new apartment when his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls. Their father has died, and Judd needs to come home.

The funeral is an awkward affair. Judd's older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) has taken to his new role as the head of the family with an overly-controlling attitude. Wendy is busy with her two children, considering that her husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) is an inattentive workaholic. The siblings' mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) has had breast implants, and the service is the first time Judd is seeing the result of the plastic surgery. Just as the rabbi is preparing to read a psalm, Phillip (Adam Driver), the youngest child, pulls up to the gravesite with music blaring, and that's a mild display of Phillip's usual disposition.

Hillary informs her children that the final request of their atheist father, who used to put up a Christmas tree for the holidays, was for his family to come together for the traditional Jewish custom of shiva, a seven-day observation of mourning in which the family sits and receives guests. The children don't want to be there, and the fighting starts almost immediately. The old conflicts come back. Paul is still bossy, and Phillip counters by reminding him that Judd used to date his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn). Now there are new targets, too. Wendy keeps pushing Judd to reveal his divorce to the family. Paul and Alice are trying to get pregnant to no avail. Phillip has brought his fiancée Tracy (Connie Britton), who is more than a few years older than him and is a psychiatrist—just like his mother.

The script has an abundance of characters, and that's without mentioning Horry (Timothy Olyphant), the neighbor whom Wendy dated until he suffered a brain injury, and Penny (Rose Byrne), who had a crush on Judd when they were younger. Tropper's screenplay is understandably frugal in terms of characterization, given that there are so many players here. Some of the potentially juicy areas of the relationships, such as the fact that Hillary wrote a book on childrearing using her own children as case studies, don't go anywhere, and a lot of the characters' individual conflicts, such as Wendy's attraction to Horry, are suggested more than explored.

It might sound trite, but Tropper gives each of these characters at least one scene in which they can shine. It provides the film with an array of very fine performances. The virtues of the central cast are more obvious. Bateman, as a man who barely started processing his divorce before the death of a father he believes he disappointed, and Fey, as a woman trying to balance the responsibility of motherhood with the realization that her mate isn't quite up to the task of fatherhood or being a husband, are especially noteworthy, but so are Driver, as the bad boy who knows he should be better but can't help himself, and Stoll, as an uptight pragmatist with a short fuse. We also, though, get brief moments of unexpected depth from Hahn and Britton, who lends a wealth of dignity to an otherwise thankless role as a mostly unwelcome houseguest. Byrne is a reliable, joyful foil to Bateman's gloominess.

There's some nice shorthand to Tropper's screenplay and director Shawn Levy's staging that helps make these characters and relationships feel richer than they actually are. We note the way Judd and Wendy have some of their most important conversations while sitting on the roof outside the windows of their respective bedrooms, and we imagine years of late nights sitting in the same spot while talking about similar hopes and fears. The image of two people with their foreheads touching turns into a physical representation of the things that these people are too uncomfortable to say.

The film becomes sentimental, but it earns that quality with the bite of its earlier scenes. It gets a tad overly complicated (Quinn returns with unanticipated news to interrupt Judd's blossoming romance), but the emotional foundation of these characters is concise. Everything in This Is Where I Leave You might even seem to become a bit too straightforward in resolving its conflicts, but that would suggest that there even is resolution here. It's an honest film, and the height of its honesty is that its characters' stories don't end with periods but with ellipses.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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