REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
With a sprawling ensemble cast, “This Is Where I Leave You” is a dramedy revolving around the interpersonal dynamics of a secular Jewish family. This Altman clan hails from suburban Westchester County, outside of New York City.
The storyline is propelled by the death of the Altman family patriarch, who had run a local sporting goods store. His four grown children; Judd (Jason Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Tina Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver); rendezvous at the funeral.
The screenplay by Jonathan Tropper adapts his own novel of the same name. He uses the funereal convocation to examine the myriad unresolved issues in the lives of family members.
The bereaved widow, Hillary (Jane Fonda), is the author of a best-selling manual on child-rearing. Much to her children’s everlasting embarrassment, the book revealed intimate details about their lives.
After the funeral, Hillary informs her children of their father’s dying wish. According to her, he wanted his children to sit shiva in his memory. This is a Jewish ritual in which family and friends gather for seven days and mourn the decedent. The children are puzzled by the fact that they are engaging in this Jewish tradition. After all, their father was a professed atheist and their mother is a gentile. Growing up, the family had an annual Christmas tree reposing in the living room.
Judd (Bateman) is the closest to being the film’s protagonist. We meet Judd in an introductory scene, before his father dies. He works as a producer for Wade Boulanger (Dax Sheperd), a syndicated radio shock jock. One afternoon, Judd arrives home early only to discover Wade and his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer), en flagrante delicto.
Paul (Stoll) is the oldest child. He is the only one of the siblings, who has remained in their hometown. For decades, Paul has worked alongside his father in the family sporting goods store. His wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn), is desperate to have a child.
Wendy (Fey) is a responsible mother, who is raising a young tyke, Cole (Cade Lappin). Her husband, Barry (Aaron Lazar) is a first class jerk, who is permanently attached to his cell phone, making business deals.
Phillip (Driver) is the baby of the family. He is an emotionally arrested slacker, who has supported himself as a pot dealer. He surprises everyone by showing up with a new, much older fiancée, Tracy (Connie Britton), in tow. She turns out to be a Phillip’s former psychotherapist.
Plot complications ensue. Judd, now separated from his wife, bumps into Penny (Rose Byrne from “Bridesmaids,” “Neighbors”). She returned to town to take care of her ailing mother. Now, Penny works as a perky ice-skating instructor at a nearby rink. She still has an unconsummated crush on Judd.
Paul is unnerved by the prospect that his siblings, who have inherited a proprietary interest in the business, will now interfere with its operation. Moreover, he remains consumed with jealousy over the fact that his wife had been Judd’s girlfriend years before.
Wendy is struggling to deal with her emotionally distant husband. She still harbors feelings for her former boyfriend, Horry (Timothy Olyphant from television’s “Deadwood,” “Justified”). While they were dating, back in high school, he had sustained a brain injury. Now the addled man lives across the street from the Altman family home with his mother, Linda (Debra Monk).
Phillip’s fiancé, Tracy, is closer to momma Hillary’s age than his own. Moreover, like Hillary, she is the author of a best seller replete with psychological subject matter. Oedipal complex run amuck? Where is this relationship headed?
Meanwhile, Hillary cavorts around the house in a loosely-sashed house robe, showing off her recent breast enhancement. This is congruent with Hillary’s penchant for undue candor. She insists on sharing the details about the size of her late husband’s penis and the sex life they shared together with her discomfited children.
Some of the plot lines bear dividends. Judd’s fledgling relationship with Penny as well as the resumption of Wendy’s never resolved relationship with Horry are genuinely touching. The four actors, who portray these characters, all deliver finely tuned performances.
At 76, Jane Fonda looks phenomenal. She convincingly portrays a much younger woman. Alas, every time that Fonda’s character appears on screen, the film abruptly veers away from its serious subject matter. She becomes randy comic relief within a seemingly serious drama. Hillary is supposedly an expert in psychology. Nevertheless, she disdainfully violates the expressed boundaries of others and acts in a grossly inappropriate fashion. Funny? Not so much.
“This is Where I Leave You” assembles an impressive cast and contains some strong performances. It disconcertingly jumps between poignancy and slapstick. Ultimately, these abrupt tonal shifts subvert the film.
** ½ R (for language, sexual content and some drug use) 103 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.