How often do you get to see a dysfunctional family film that is equal parts poignant, smart and funny? So many filmmakers strive to achieve this exact balance and fail miserably, usually going over the top either with drama or comedy, making the film either pathetically comedic, or so depressing you want to off yourself after leaving the movie theatre.
And then This Is Where I Leave You happened.
Starring Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver, among others, the film is pretty much meant to be successful by definition but you never know. Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Tropper – who also wrote the film’s screenplay by the way – This Is Where I Leave You is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the year.
Judd Altman (Jason Batemen), as well as his brothers and a sister, come back home for their father’s funeral and end up ‘being grounded’ by their mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) so that they would sit Shiva, which was their father’s dying wish.
Crammed in their old house, the siblings have to deal with each other, their spouses, kids, parents and a never ending string of grieving family friends while their mother shares the worst and most embarrassing stories from their childhoods. Nightmarish, isn’t it?
On top of that, each of the siblings have to deal with their personal issues that aren’t making the family time any easier: Judd’s older brother Paul (Corey Stall) and his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who also happens to be Judd’s ex, go through a hard time as their attempts to have a baby keep getting nowhere; Wendy (Tina Fey), Judd’s sister, leaves her husband and hooks up with her high school sweethearts/next door neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant) who is suffering from a long term brain trauma caused by the car accident, which she feels responsible for since she was right there with him when it happened; their youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) brings over his fiancé-slash-therapist who is nearly twice older than him. As for Judd, he has to decide what he should do about his failed marriage and his wife’s ‘out of the blue’ pregnancy. Naturally, his fling with an old friend/sexy ice-skating instructor Penny (Rose Byrne) is not making things any less complicated!
There are decisions to be made, truths to be accepted and some doors to be closed. Add Hilary’s romance with Horry’s mother – hey, you didn’t know your mother was gay? Ha, have fun! – and enjoy the ride!
Frankly, making a fun and oddly positive film about a dysfunctional family that, ironically, starts with a funeral, is a form or art, if you ask me. Which is exactly why This Is Where I Leave You feels like a one of a kind smart comedy that doesn’t try to sell fart jokes… much.
Despite the grim setup, the film is surprisingly positive and uplifting. It manages to leave out the bad parts of your usual conflicts and keep the good stuff, somehow remaining rather lighthearted and sweet.
Let’s not forget unconventional approach to the family drama – This Is Where I Leave You plays out the embarrassment over the mother’s oversharing instead of making everyone hate each other. For once. We’re quite used to let’s-get-together-and-fix-our-family-bond kind of films that make any storyline lacking actual problems between the siblings quite refreshing. Of course there’s some tension between Judd and Paul because of Annie and the never-ending debate over who is more worth of the father’s shop, but all in all they seem like a peaceful bunch compared to, say, the family from August: Osage County.
Open endings for most of storylines also seem to be a win. Judd, contrary to conventional approach, decides to leave the pregnant wife and support her without keeping their marriage going. Same goes for Wendy who ultimately breaks up with her estranged husband and starts an on/off relationship with her high school sweetheart even though any kind of happy ending is quite questionable for them. Phillip’s fiancé/therapist beaks up with him but then he openly admits being in love with her so… who knows? Maybe they’d patch up their relationship sooner or later. Paul and Annie are still not pregnant by the end of the film but they’re closer than ever so there’s hope for them as well! As for Judd and Penny, however it goes for both of them, at least they’re giving it a try.
Even though the story and the script and most of the dialogue is not particularly brilliant, the cast ignites every scene, making their performances worth your time and money. Trust Fonda, Fey and Driver to make the best out of nothing.
As fun as ensemble cast movies may be now and then, they can also be quite confusing since we don’t get to spend enough time with each of the characters and develop proper attachment to them, thus – I liked Judd and Wendy alright because Judd is sort of the center of the story, and who can avoid swooning over Tina Fey? The rest of them, however, are ‘somewhere there’ in the background, their ultimate fate being the least of the audience’s concern.
The never-ending joke about Hilary’s boob job that comes up every other minute gets old pretty fast. If you didn’t get it the first time around – well, you have about a hundred more times to actually get on that train.
Some of the moments, like smoking pot during the service, are so over the top ‘Please, laugh here!’ they are actually very, very cringe-worthy. And worst of all – they don’t bring anything to the story.
This Is Where I Leave You couldn’t have possibly escaped ‘old as world’ problem every adaptation faces on some level – what works in the book does not necessarily work on screen. The narrative parts that make sense in the novel – daily routines and such, for instance – are a massive fail on screen. They make the film feel dragging at times, bringing too many unnecessary details that do contribute a lot to the book but that couldn’t have possibly worked in the motion picture.
Plot holes and weaknesses aside, the film is undeniably enjoyable. Some of the jokes may fall flat, others get overused, and some would work better if they were left out entirely but, all things considered, This Is Where I Leave You is light and lovely and not nearly as depressing or silly as one might fear. If you want to have a fun Sunday night, checking out This Is Where I Leave You wouldn’t be a mistake.