What does it say about our times that dysfunctional family comedies have become a freestanding subgenre in the moviemaking universe? Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You is the second example of such in three years – following Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love and Misunderstanding – in which Jane Fonda plays a kooky matriarch who oversees a battling clan with superior, Zenlike aplomb and a bit of strategic tinkering, despite the fact that it was largely her own unorthodox parenting that turned these kids into ill-assorted, maladjusted wrecks in adulthood.
The good news here is that Fonda’s character, Hillary Altman, while central to the plot devices that give This Is Where I Leave You structure, is not the film’s primary focus. Based on a novel by Jonathan Tropper, who also wrote the screenplay, this story of four battling siblings artificially forced to come to terms with one another – and with their own inner conflicts and denials – is told from the point of view of Judd Altman, ably played by Jason Bateman. Judd has just discovered that his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) has been having an affair with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepard) when news comes of his father’s demise.
As so often happens when such milestones bring scattered siblings back together, longstanding grudges and irritations surface quickly through the muck of shared grief in the family compound in an upscale Westchester suburb. They intensify when Mom announces that Dad’s last wish, though he was hardly a devout Jew, was for the family to sit shiva for the traditional full seven days. Hillary, a psychiatrist and the author of a best-selling parenting guide that divulged her kids’ most embarrassing foibles to the world years before, has an agenda here, of course, which we will discover by and by.
Paul, the eldest (Corey Stoll), resents always having to be the square, responsible brother, even while he resists having black-sheep youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) join him in running the family business, a sporting goods store. Claiming to be turning over a new leaf while acting every bit as spoiled, infantile and self-indulgent as ever, Phillip shows up with a seemingly sensible new girlfriend, Tracy (Connie Britton), who used to be his therapist. Nobody understands what Tracy sees in Phillip, other than feeling energized by his zany impulsivity.
Childless Paul spends much of the movie dashing out to have sex with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) every time her thermometer suggests that she might be fertile. Annie also happens to be an ex-girlfriend of Judd from way back, and begins giving him the eye as a potential sperm donor once Quinn calls with the bombshell that she is pregnant, by Judd. In spite of their divorce going forward, Quinn decides not to have an abortion, her previous miscarriage having been the albatross that initially dragged down the couple’s marriage. Meanwhile, another of Judd’s old girlfriends, Penny (Rose Byrne), turns up to join the mourners and admit that she still has a crush on him.
Then there’s sister Wendy (Tina Fey), who seems fairly uninterested in her own two small children and actively hostile to her husband Barry (Aaron Lazar). Turns out that Wendy has never gotten over her high school flame Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who still lives with his mother across the street. Horry’s a stone charmer in spite of the fact that an auto accident when he and Wendy were dating left her physically unscathed, but him with major brain damage, dooming their relationship. For additional comic relief, we get the wacky young local rabbi (Ben Schwartz), who conducts Dad’s funeral and endures relentless reminders from the Altman clan that their name for him back in their mutual schooldays was Boner.
Got that, mostly? It’s a mixed bag of unhappy young adults whose Venn diagrams overlap in every imaginable direction, whose lives are increasingly filled with complications and most of whom are habitual enablers of one another’s neuroses. With an ensemble cast with strong comedic chops inhabiting this gang of fractious, lovable losers brought together by a death, This Is Where I Leave You is reminiscent of The Big Chill – only a version in which nearly everybody is related, instead of just old college buddies. It’s not brilliantly original, but it’s mordantly funny most of the time, just heartwarming enough not to be a downer without getting soppy, with a script that sounds pretty good and moves perkily along. It isn’t the best comedy that you’ll see this year, but it isn’t the worst either. Your move.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.