Not by any means a fantastical story or even a unique one, This is Where I Leave You, works not in spite of those facts but because of them. A film based on the novel of the same name and directed by Shawn Levy (A Night at the Museum movie series) is the right story at the right time. Hitting theaters after the blockbuster summer fest is a well written, smart, funny, and heartwarming story about where lives intersect and what happens when they do. Starring Jason Bateman as Judd Altman, a middle child of four who works as a radio show producer. Due to the death of his father he is forced to go back to his hometown and deal with the fallout. The cast of characters that make up the Altman family is a cornucopia of hilarity, sincerity, and unflinching sadness at times. Hillary (Jane Fonda), the matriarch, welcomes her son back home along with his three siblings Wendy (Tina Fey), Phillip (Adam Driver), and Paul (Corey Stoll). The dysfunctional dynamics between the five characters becomes apparent rather quickly. Hillary is a retired therapist who has used her children as some sort of case study for decades and their emotional distance from her is prominent. All four children and their significant others have some level of distress happening to them. From failing marriages to an inability to conceive children the movie runs the gamut. There is some personal relationship that you can either relate to directly or at a minimum have the ability to empathize. Due to the dying request of their father, the five are forced to partake in the Jewish tradition of “Shiva.” This is a mourning ritual that demands all five family members stay in the house and meet friends and family who stop by to pay their respects to their father. This of course creates immediate conflict between the "hard ass" brother, the “play it safe” brother, the “smart ass” sister, and the perpetual "screw up" youngest son.
What works for This is Where I Leave You most is its ability to switch from the sometime juvenile comedic moments to the gut wrenching dramatic scenes with relative ease. Its never feels awkward but rather familiar. As a viewer you might catch yourself very wrapped up in the intersecting story lines that seem more like normal family gossip than a detached movie scenario. Each of the siblings are flawed and you root for them all at one point or another. Very few things are cut and dry as is par for the course in films like these. I don’t want to give away too much of the story but this is one of the better character driven stories I have seen in a while. Characters have definitive arcs that bring things to a point of conclusion. Its not all happiness and rainbows, but just a level of human understanding and growth. This is Where I Leave You is a personal story. The characters get bumped and bruised and do their fair share of dishing it out. No one is clean and perfect hero, but rather flawed by the lives that they have led.
The performances were individually more than satisfying for this type of story. However, with this being an ensemble cast the considerable heavy lifting happened when the mother and siblings lives intersect. Adam Driver as the perpetual screw up giving at advice to his sister, Tina Fey, is a particularly touching moment. Lines like “...you raised me, you are the voice in my head” allow you to glean the characters' relationships underneath it all. Jason Bateman steers the ship with his everyman ways and spot on comedic timing. He was a pitch perfect casting choice here. Corey Stoll does a wonderful job as the staunch older brother who approves of nothing his siblings are doing. He is riddled with insecurity and guilt about his current life and he shows it in subtle, yet effective, ways. Last but certainly not least, Jane Fonda as the mother and general instigator to all this family drama. Fonda, works because she keeps and emotional distance from her children but in the right moments she is in fact the most vulnerable. A great performance with perfect mix of comedy, culpability, and a dash of mother’s guilt. This is Where I Leave You was a movie that threw a lot of balls into the air but managed to keep track of them all and deliver a great post summer blockbuster experience.
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