This is Where I Leave You is the kind of film that I would often describe to friends who ask me about its quality as being “good for what it is” or “fine if you’re into that sort of thing.” It’s an unchallenging, unpretentious dysfunctional family dramedy that never breaks any molds, but never finds ways of boring the audience. It’s fleet, funny, and ever so lightly tragic without being condescending towards the audience or shamelessly wearing down the tear ducts of the viewer. It’s certainly a high point for director Shawn Levy (Cheaper By the Dozen, Real Steel, the Night at the Museum films) and a solid entry for all involved. It’s just doubtful that many will remember this one long after they see it. It will act as a footnote in the varied careers of this stacked ensemble cast and serve as yet another adaptation of a bestselling novel that will barely garner as much attention as the source material did.
Adapted by writer Jonathan Tropper from his own novel of the same name (and actually very much improved upon because the characters in that book often sound like enormous assholes), it’s one of those “nothing brings family together like a funeral” tales. It’s the story of the cheekily named Altman clan, an obvious nod to the famous American director who specialized in such ensemble led, banter based productions, but always ones better than this. Their allegedly “atheist Jew” father has decided for his final earthly wish that he wants his estranged family to sit Shiva for him at the suburban home they once shared together.
They all have their own baggage. The soon-to-be divorced Judd (Jason Bateman) is a radio show producer who realizes his boss (Dax Shepard) has been banging his wife (Abigail Spencer). He’s also distracted by being placed in close proximity to Penny (Rose Byrne), a.k.a. the one he probably should have stayed with before he left town. Wendy (Tina Fey) is a loving mother who has to raise the kids practically on her own because her yuppie husband is too focused on his career and she now has to deal with the memory of Horry (Timothy Olyphant), the kind man across the street that she used to be madly in love with until he got a head injury. Paul (Corey Stoll) is the smartest of the brothers, but under a lot of stress because he can’t quite seem to conceive a baby with his wife (Kathryn Hahn). Philip (Adam Driver, in yet another standout performance that will lead him to further stardom) is the uncouth family fuck up who’s dating his vastly older, wealthier therapist (Connie Britton). And their mother (Jane Fonda) isn’t all that helpful, as she’s an image obsessed novelist who was never forgiven for exploiting her family in her most noteworthy work.
It’s one of THOSE movies, and I feel kind of bad because I have essentially told you everything there is to know about the film, and any surprises that arise from these “complicated” dynamics can be seen coming from far away and even by the most inattentive of viewers. That doesn’t mean the film isn’t charming, though. There’s actually quite a bit going for it, and despite always knowing where it was headed, the energy from the cast and the material never flags while going through the motions.
Levy gets the chance to direct his cast far more organically here instead of relying on over-the-top visual effects and zaniness to rule the day. He can’t refrain from going too long without larger goofball set pieces like the brothers bonding over joints while skipping temple or a front lawn brawl when everyone breaks down and wants to murder each other. Levy has staked his entire career on making pleasing, populist, feel-good fare, and his template works. Next to the surprisingly entertaining Real Steel, it’s probably the best thing he’s come up with as a filmmaker, but that’s not a huge bar to clear. He just knows what he’s doing and that’s all he needs to know.
The cast varies between playing variations on roles they could play in their sleep (Fey, Stoll, Hahn), roles that require a certain amount of finesse and nuance for them to work beyond being caricatures (Driver, Britton, Olyphant), roles that require canned hams (Fonda, Shepard), thankless supporting roles (Byrne, Spencer), and Jason Bateman.
I feel the need to single out Bateman because this might be his best on screen performance because he’s not being called upon to be the same old sarcastic asshole he usually gets tapped to play in this sort of thing. There’s a great sympathy that’s built towards Judd, which makes sense since he’s the de facto leading man, but there’s also warmth to his struggles. The whole family feels awkward and the people in Bateman’s life are all prone to histrionic fits, but there’s a sadness conveyed by Bateman here that has been absent from a lot of his previous leading roles. His Judd is confident, but terrified of the future. The role puts his comedic abilities to good use and gives his dramatic chops more of a workout than they’ve had in years. He’s the grounding force that keeps the family and the film itself from spiralling out of control.
Overall, the film isn’t much more than an adequate time killer that’s more suited for rainy day watching at home than something that one needs to rush out to the cinema to shell out $12 to watch. But if you’re so inclined to see a film like this and you know deep down it’s worth your money, then go for it. You could do far, far worse. It’s just good enough for me to recommend it to friends of mine who I know would enjoy this kind of a picture.