After the death of their father, the Altman children return home to fulfill their father’s dying wish that they “sit shiva,” a Jewish tradition of week-long mourning in which they stay at the family home and receive visitors. During shiva, Judd (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll), Phillip (Adam Driver), and their mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), all confront marital and familial issues.
A movie about a dysfunctional family coming together after the death of a patriarch is something we’ve seen a million times before (Think August: Osage County or Death at a Funeral). The same is true of the complicated issues that face the Altman children—divorce after a spouse cheats, a lonely marriage, infertility, etc. These are basically drag-and-drop character backgrounds for this type of “dramedy.” But that doesn’t mean This Is Where I Leave You doesn’t still add to the discussion of family, marriage, divorce, and life.
Take Jason Bateman’s Judd Altman. After finding out his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer), and his boss, Wade (Dax Shepard), had been sleeping together for a year, Judd quit his job and got divorced. Then, during shiva, he begins a fling with an old acquaintance, Penny (Rose Byrne), and finds out his ex-wife is carrying his child.
But Judd isn’t faced with the binary “It’s either me or her” situation these movies often fall back on. Instead, he supports his ex-wife, ultimately forgiving her for her infidelity, decides co-parenting is best for their unborn child, and tells Penny he needs to live on his own for a few months before they can start a relationship that fulfills both of their needs. It’s a solid message about the types of love you can experience (friendly, familial, passionate), and it shows writer Jonathan Tropper (who also wrote the book upon which this movie is based) understands the complexity of modern families.
This same message applies when Jane Fonda’s matriarch reveals that she and her longtime friend and neighbor, Linda (Debra Monk), are in a relationship together. It’s a triangle theme similar to Judd, Quinn, and Penny. Hillary and Linda had been good friends, and Hillary’s husband paid Linda’s mortgage after the death of her husband. When Hillary’s husband was in final months of his life, he was supported their relationship because he knew Hillary would have Linda to comfort and love her after he was gone.
I was a little annoyed by how the “I’m a lesbian” reveal was played for shock-value and laughs. I mean, I get it contextually. The Altman children have always known their mother as an overt heterosexual, so of course it would be surprising and awkward, especially since it was revealed in the middle of a fight between Judd, Paul, and Phillip the week after their father’s death. At the same time, using gay as a plot twist to surprise the audience when it’s an identity constantly attacked by the very people who I’m assuming are this movie’s target demographic is frustrating to say the least (Was it like this in the book, too?). Don’t front “modern love” then revert to the ’80s.
Though the overall story of This Is Where I Leave You is fairly solid, the movie, itself, has weaknesses. For one, it’s awkwardly paced, often cutting away from moments where more development would’ve been nice (like the scene between Tina Fey’s Wendy and Timothy Olyphant’s Horry, where they discuss their lost love). Also, because the cast is so large, it’s hard to balance the screentime. Obviously, the Altman children and their mother get the most screentime, but talented actors like Connie Britton (who plays Phillip’s older girlfriend) and Timothy Olyphant get gypped a little.
I liked most of it. It was funny, sad, infuriating, and awkward all at once, much like any family function. Plus, there are a few moments (like the silent glance between Judd and his mother at the movie’s end) that are filmed so poignantly that I had to fight tears.
Overall, This Is Where I Leave You is similar to other dysfunctional family dramedies. There are knock-down, drag-out fights between siblings, secrets are being shared left and right, and everyone is yelling. Yet as much as this movie tries to convince its audience that the Altman family is dysfunctional, it almost makes a case for that dysfunction being functional. It helps, too, that the movie focuses on the different types of love people experience, from family affection to passionate romance, as well as the structures of complicated families. Basically, it’s a movie with an honest approach to life, love, marriage, and family with a nice touch of comedy.
This Is Where I Leave You: B+
For my radio review of This Is Where I Leave You on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 18:03 mark).