[This is a re-post of my This Is Where I Leave You review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens in theaters nationwide today.]
Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans, or so the saying goes. There are some trite phrases that, while clichéd, kind of ring true, and in the case of This Is Where I Leave You, director Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the Jonathan Tropper novel of the same name, the Altman family has certainly seen better days. The patriarch’s dying wish was to have his entire family sit shiva for seven days to mourn his death, and when the Altman clan reunites to fulfill his request, old wounds are opened, past relationships are rekindled, and all are reminded that this isn’t exactly how they envisioned their lives turning out. Buoyed by a stellar ensemble and a standout performance from Adam Driver, Levy mostly succeeds in bringing Tropper’s novel to the screen with plenty of humor, heart, and sentiment. While Levy goes overboard with the schmaltz here and there and a couple of the storylines are undercooked, the film’s mix of sincerity and biting humor is ultimately a swell combination.
Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is in the immediate aftermath of finding out that his wife (Abigail Spencer) has been cheating on him with his boss (Dax Sheperd) for a full year when he learns that his father has passed away. Moreover, his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) informs him that his father’s dying wish was to have his entire family sit shiva for seven days, despite the fact that their mother (Jane Fonda) isn’t Jewish and their father was an atheist.
And so the entire Altman clan—including the overly serious older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and the wild child/favorite younger brother Philip (Adam Driver)—descends upon their childhood home along with their respective family members to sit and mourn the patriarch for a week. As the shiva progresses under the ever-watchful eye of their candid, book-famous psychiatrist mother (Jane Fonda) and her perky new bustline, the relationships among the family members begin to both unravel and strengthen as the slightly estranged Altmans are forced to act like a family again.
Bateman is wonderful as the everyman Judd, but for the first half of the film it’s hard to get a read on his character. His siblings, mother, and even periphery characters like Philip’s older psychiatrist girlfriend (Connie Britton) and Paul’s fertility challenged wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) are all pretty easy to get a hook into, but it’s not until about halfway through the movie that we really start to understand Judd. It’s no doubt a consequence of adapting the novel into a film (in this case, Tropper adapted his own book by penning the screenplay), but it does make for a slight emotional disconnect with our lead for a chunk of the film’s running time. He’s funny and quick-witted, but since we’re mostly being introduced to his family members through his eyes, we’re left wondering, “who is Judd?”
There’s plenty of sharp, biting humor throughout the film to keep things engaging, especially from Adam Driver as Philip. The playboy sibling character has been done to death, but Driver brings a depth and charm to the role that makes him exceedingly likable and beguiling, despite his more unsavory characteristics. Driver’s delivery is incredible, nailing punch lines left and right and then hitting crucial emotional beats with ease. There’s a scene towards the end of the film between Philip and Judd involving very little dialogue and a few simple physical gestures that really hits hard in spite of the clear sentimentality, and it all comes down to the look on Driver’s face. The guy is phenomenal.
Tina Fey also proves to be a standout in this large cast, delivering the best dramatic performance of her career in her portrayal of Wendy, a confident yet vulnerable woman who—thanks to a childhood with three brothers—is able to go toe-to-toe with the best. Her relationship with Bateman is a highlight of the film, as the two make one of the more likeable and believable onscreen sibling pairings in recent memory.
But there are also a couple of characters in the film that don’t completely work. Horry (Timothy Olyphant) was the love of Wendy’s life and her high school boyfriend, but when a car crash rendered him mentally impaired, she left. Horry is a tough character to bring to life in the book, and Olyphant has the unenviable task of walking the line between parody and sincerity when it comes to portraying his mental impairment in the film. Olyphant does what he can, but in all honesty there’s not much to work with given the character’s small screen time, and he ends up feeling a few degrees “off”.
There’s also the issue of Poppy (Rose Byrne), a character on whom Judd had a crush in high school. Her romantic storyline with Judd in the film falls flat, and as a result, some pieces of the overall story ring false. This is another character that is more fleshed out in the book, and it would have been impossible to give her more screen time in the film given the size of the central Altman clan, but Poppy never fully comes together. She’s supposed to have an awkward demeanor, but Byrne’s performance verges more on the side of ADD-fueled excitement, making her encounters with Bateman more uncomfortable than romantic.
There are moments when Levy gets a little heavy-handed with the sentimentality—especially when it comes to the bevy of needledrops—but visually, the film is a solid step up for the filmmaker. He seems to be more confident behind the camera, and he’s able to capture some interesting and arresting shots while maintaining the focus on his characters. This is undoubtedly his most mature work to date, and one hopes he’ll tackle more adult-geared stories in the future.
There are a few other victims of the adaptation from book to screen aside from Horry and Poppy, namely a major subplot involving Paul that is excised altogether, but for the most part Levy and Tropper did a solid job of maintaining the heart of the novel throughout the film. As Judd points out, he spent his entire life playing it safe to avoid being exactly where he is. Few people feel like they’ve ended up right where they planned to, but we do the best with what we have and enjoy the people that surround us, lest we spend our whole adulthood waiting for a life that never materializes.
Family is a funny thing. We spend so much time around these people when we’re growing up and are so eager to move on and become an adult that we forget that, oftentimes, they know us better than we know ourselves. With This Is Where I Leave You, Levy offers a snapshot of a very specific family and a very general family all at once, and just like in real life, there are equal parts humor and tears, anger and love. Sure it can feel a little heavy-handed at times, but by the end of the film, its heart-on-sleeve sincerity becomes one of its most endearing aspects.