A great ensemble cast navigates brash, uncomfortable and ultimately heartwarming family reunion
Director Shawn Levy has teetered for years on the cusp between being a hack (Real Steel, the Steve Martin remakes of Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther) and a craftsman (Night at the Museum, Date Night). With This Is Where I Leave You, Levy pulls within shouting distance—a loud shout, from some miles off—of being an artist. At the very least, he has a strong script (by Jonathan Tropper, from his novel) and a stronger cast, and he doesn’t muff it.
Tropper’s story is the reunion of the four adult Altman siblings at the funeral of their father. Their mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) insists that the family sit shiva for him. That means seven days. They’re not estranged, exactly, just not all that comfortable around each other for any length of time.
Jason Bateman plays Judd, still reeling from catching his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer), in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard), a radio shock-jock. He learns of his father’s death from his older sister Wendy (Tina Fey), the sibling who most often plays buffer and peacemaker among the others. Younger than Wendy and older than Judd is Paul (Corey Stoll), whose wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn), is desperate to have a baby. The youngest sibling, who still hasn’t really grown up, is Phillip (Adam Driver).
At the Altmans’ suburban homestead, old flames flicker. For Judd it’s Penny (Rose Byrne), a motormouthed pepper-pot whose high school crush on Judd has never gone away. For Wendy it’s neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant). There’s something darker and more complex here, involving an accident they endured together as teenagers. That first love, and lingering guilt, has stayed with Wendy, underlying her lukewarm marriage to narcissistic Barry (Aaron Lazar).
Meanwhile, Paul, who stayed in their hometown running the family hardware business while his sister and brothers sailed off in all directions, wants to buy them all out, sparking an argument with the feckless Phillip. And all four carry a simmering resentment against their mother, a best-selling author who became rich and famous parading every family crisis for the amusement of millions of strangers.
Tropper’s script negotiates all these roiling crosscurrents like an expert kayaker in whitewater rapids. We cringe and laugh, laugh and cringe, so often and in such quick succession that sometimes it feels like we’re doing both simultaneously. And Levy, to his credit, establishes a rhythm that keeps the action, even at its most outlandish, within the bounds of family squabbling—italicized, underlined and bolded, perhaps, but still recognizable to anybody whose relatives ever, even for a minute, drove them nuts.
There’s an honest bittersweetness to This Is Where I Leave You. The Altmans may send each other up the walls sometimes, but there’s an affectionate bond they can’t deny—and wouldn’t if they could. (“You may be idiots,” Wendy tells her brothers, “but you’re my idiots.”) And underneath it all—in fact, even on the surface most of the time—they’re all good and decent people.
Finally—though I hesitate to elevate one member of such a well-matched ensemble of equals—a word about Fey. Some talents are so smooth that they can be taken for granted for years. Cary Grant was one of those, and Fey is probably another. She may never receive an Academy Award nomination, but in a just world she’d get one for this. Notice the expression on her face at the end as she’s driven off to the airport. That’s great acting.