I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Tropper‘s novel This Is Where I Leave You, so I went into this one with a real mix of anticipation and dread, especially after the very mixed response that the film adaptation received at the recent Toronto Film Festival. Luckily for me, this is a well done dramedy, if not quite the brilliant mix of comedy and heartfelt drama that the novel is. Tropper did write the adaptation though, so much of the charm still remains. Director Shawn Levy tries his hand at something more mature than usual here, and thanks to the script and the strong ensemble cast, he’s mostly successful. There are moments where things get too broad and head in a silly direction, but the inherent melancholy of the movie keeps things in check. With solid turns from the likes of Jason Bateman, Adam Driver, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, and Corey Stoll, just to name a few, the charm of the characters interacting is what really holds true here. The flick is far from perfect, that’s for sure, and isn’t nearly as successful in maintaining the brilliance of the source material like Men, Women & Children is, though they’re very different works. This Is Where I Leave You is a dysfunctional family dramedy that also manages to be a real crowd pleaser.
To say that Judd Altman (Bateman) is having a bad go of it is to make the sort of understatement that can only lead to depressed laughter. Judd comes home one day to find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock jock boss Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard). As you might imagine, Judd no longer has a job or a wife, though within almost the blink of an eye, his sister Wendy (Fey) calls him to say he no longer has a father either. Altman family patriarch Mort has died and the funeral brings together all of his children. After the services, surgically enhanced widow Hillary (Fonda) informs Judd, Wendy, and other siblings Paul (Stoll) and Phillip (Driver) that Mort’s dying wish, despite him being an Atheist, was for his family to engage in a Jewish tradition and sit Shiva for him. Thus, the Altmans are forced to be under one roof once again, with all of their issues (not to mention significant others) festering and being prodded by each other. Judd has to figure out his life while encountering a blast from his past in Penny (Rose Byrne), Wendy has to contend with an unhappy marriage and feelings for a brain damaged old flame (Timothy Olyphant), Paul is struggling to impregnate his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn), and notorious screw up Phillip is in everyone’s business and depressing his older girlfriend/former shrink Tracy (Connie Britton). That’s just the tip of the iceberg too. Things get pretty serious at times, but they also can be downright hilarious too.
I liked that a number of traditionally comedic actors and actresses were asked to be more serious than usual here, with the more dramatic leaning ones getting to loosen up a little bit. The aforementioned main group of Jason Bateman, Adam Driver, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, and Corey Stoll are all pretty solid (especially when they interact/spar with each other), with Driver and Fonda doing the best of that bunch. Fonda especially is best in show for me, bringing a heft to the role I don’t think you would have otherwise had. Driver continues to show that he’s going to be a big star very soon (probably once he’s seen in a certain galaxy far, far away) and gets to be pretty crazy here. He’s the film’s spark plug for sure. Stoll is always a pleasure to see on the screen and as the purportedly mature sibling, he gets to sometimes be the straight man and seems to be relishing it. Bateman and Fey are far more into dramedy territory than they’re used to, though Bateman has been in that realm before in things like Juno. Both are strong, though Bateman is a little more low-key than perhaps he needed to be. The aforementioned supporting players like Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, and Abigail Spencer are more than fine, while Rose Byrne is amusing but sadly a little bit wasted. The rest of the cast includes the likes of Aaron Lazar, Debra Monk, and Ben Schwartz, but if you asked me who the MVP is here, I’d have to say Fonda.
Without the crux of special effects, Shawn Levy has to spend his directing capital here wrangling his cast and keeping the film moving. By and large, he’s successful, though some of his more manic habits rear up from time to time. This does suggest that he has lower key work in him, and I’m pleased about that. Levy is unremarkable here, but he’s far from bad. More of an auteur would have been able to elevate Jonathan Tropper’s script though. Tropper is a brilliant novelist and has been a sought after scribe for a while now, so this representing his first foray into adapting his own work, it’s interesting to note how willing he is to mess with his own work. Certain plot elements are tinkered with, and while I wish he would have kept one or two, nothing is ruined at all, especially the respectful way in which he pokes fun at Judaism. A couple of pseudo twists probably played better to me because I was expecting them, while certain subplots got more attention than others, but I really liked his writing and would love to see what his take on Harvey for Steven Spielberg would have been like.
Overall, This Is Where I Leave You manages to tug at both your funny bone and your heartstrings. Perhaps it’ll be a little uneven for some, but I enjoyed the final product and can rest easy knowing that the book was not ruined. If you like ensemble dramedies, this should be well worth checking out. There’s better things in theaters now than This Is Where I Leave You, but there’s much worse as well.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!