Like the family at its center, This is Where I Leave You is a hilarious and charmingly cluttered mess. It’s got too many characters with too many issues to fully explore and resolve, but boy, does it try hard to do so, or at least give each member of the ensemble an opportunity to justify their character’s presence in the proceedings. The resulting film thus feels more like a collection of awkward moments, true confessions and warm-hearted epiphanies than a cohesive, emotionally impactful whole.
Jason Bateman leads the ensemble cast as radio show producer Judd Altman, who returns to his childhood Long Island neighborhood for the funeral of his father just days after discovering in the worst possible way that his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) had been cheating on him for over a year with his obnoxious shock jock boss, Wade (Dax Shepard). The service brings Judd together with all three of his siblings for the first time in years — overbearing eldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll), bossy big sister Wendy (Tina Fey), and baby brother and perpetual ne’er-do-well Phillip (Adam Driver) — and together they find out from their mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) their father’s dying wish: that the family sit Shiva together after his funeral for the traditional seven days and seven nights, and thus have to put up with one another all under the same roof for a week.
Were it just the Altmans themselves stuck in the family house once again with Mom, it might seem less insane, but of course there are more complications. Paul and his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) are just about at the end of their rope in their years-long, regimented efforts to conceive a child. Wendy and her less-than-likeable workaholic husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) barely speak to each other, and stick out their marriage for the sake of their two young children. Phillip is surprisingly engaged to Tracy (Connie Britton), a smart and accomplished professional woman who knows better than to get involved with someone like Phillip and has done so, anyway. And Judd, well, he’s trying to keep what happened between himself and Quinn a secret from everyone for the sake of not having to relive it in the retelling.
Add to all that (yes, there’s more) Judd’s old high school flame Penny (Rose Byrne) also being back in town, Wendy’s childhood sweetheart Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who for tragic reasons never left home and is still living in the house right across the street, and lots of long-buried family arguments, perceived slights, and unresolved resentment just a wrong word away from coming to the surface and you get to where This is Where I Leave You starts. Sound like a lot? It should, because it is.
Scripted by novelist Jonathan Tropper, who adapted his own New York Times bestselling book for the film, This is Where I Leave You plays out like an entire season’s worth of the funniest family sitcom you’ve ever seen packed into 103 minutes. It’s as though Tropper simply couldn’t bear to excise any of his beloved characters or their baggage from the screenplay, and thus it falls to director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum films, The Internship) to somehow show it all, keep the tone balanced as it bounces between touching and just plain touched, as in crazy, and best showcase the talents of his supremely talented cast.
It helps that the cast has wonderful chemistry together, in particular the two performers whose characters’ bond to one another is most key to the whole thing working, Jason Bateman and Tina Fey. Their rapport as siblings and confidantes keeping each other sane in the face of the lunacy surrounding them on all sides and within their own less-than-ideal circumstances feels genuine, and their scenes together are among the film’s most engaging to watch. As screwed up as they both know they are, they consider themselves to be the sane ones in the family compared to everyone else, and thus they’re the easiest characters to relate to as the story takes its various turns.
Theirs aren’t the only standout performances here, however. Kathryn Hahn and Timothy Olyphant make the most of their limited roles and screen time, and Rose Byrne gets just enough to work with here that she can elevate her character beyond the “maniac pixie dream girl” romantic archetype that’s found its way into contemporary film geared toward Millennials and Gen-Xers. Meanwhile, an argument can be made that Jane Fonda steals just about every scene she appears in as the unapologetically outspoken family matriarch Hilary, who doesn’t hesitate to dish about her children’s misadventures in puberty or the size of her late husband’s manhood to visitors paying their respects and at the same time wonders how all of her children could have ended up so uptight and repressed. Go figure.
But for all that great chemistry between stars and all its memorable moments, the film itself ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It really does become a case of “too much of a good thing” — there’s just too much set in motion in the film’s setup, and certain characters and certain subplots either get short shrift or get lost entirely. All those extra plot threads also serve to diffuse the impact of the narrative that the film starts and ends with, Judd’s own personal crisis and how he comes to terms with it. Judd’s resolution should resound more, be more satisfying once it plays out in full on the screen. Because of all the other stuff that’s there along the way, funny and poignant as it all might have been, it just doesn’t.
Is that a deal breaker as far as how much you might enjoy This is Where I Leave You? By no means. There’s a great deal to enjoy here, in fact, and a great deal to relate to, as well. It’s a good movie, and a good time at the movies.
It just could have been better.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
This is Where I Leave You
Starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard and Jane Fonda. Directed by Shawn Levy.
Running Time: 103 minutes
Rated R for language, sexual content and some drug use.