In a family way

Just another cozy family gathering.

Just another cozy family gathering.

Rated 4.0

Director Shawn Levy has been teetering for years on the broad 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—albeit a loud shout, from some miles off—of being an artist. At the very least, he has a strong script (by Jonathan Tropper, adapted 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 Mort—and at the insistence of their mother Hillary (Jane Fonda). Mom announces that their father’s dying wish was for the family to sit shiva for him. That means seven days, and the Altmans haven’t spent that long together in years. 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 having discovered 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 sister Wendy (Tina Fey), the oldest of his siblings and the one who most often plays buffer and peacemaker among the others. Paul (Corey Stoll), who is younger than Wendy and older than Judd, is the businessman of the family; his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) is desperate to have a baby. The youngest sibling, who has failed—or refused—to grow up in any real sense, is Phillip (Adam Driver).

As the Altmans converge on their suburban homestead, old flames flicker. For Judd it’s Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), a motor-mouthed pepper pot whose high-school crush on Judd has never gone away. For Wendy, it’s neighbor Horry Callen (Timothy Olyphant). There’s something darker and more complex here, hinted at but not entirely explained: As teenagers they were involved in an accident that left her unscathed but him with mild yet disabling brain damage. That first love, and a lurking sense of guilt, has stayed with Wendy, underlying her lukewarm marriage to narcissistic Barry (Aaron Lazar). Phillip, for his part, can’t resist hooking up with one of his old conquests, humiliating his former therapist and present girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton).

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 slow-boiling resentment against their mother, a best-selling author who became rich and famous washing the family laundry in public print, parading their every childhood and adolescent 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 that reminded me of Modern Family. Like TV’s extended Pritchett/Dunphy clan, 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 Tina Fey. Some talents are so smooth that they can be taken for granted for years, even decades. Cary Grant was one of those, and Tina 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. Don’t look now, but that’s great acting.