From left, Tina Fey as Wendy Altman, Jane Fonda as Hilary Altman, Kathryn Hahn as Annie Altman, Adam Driver as Phillip Altman and Connie Britton as Tracy Sullivan in Warner Bros. Pictures’ dramatic comedy “This Is Where I Leave You.” (Warner Bros./MCT)
Ensemble dramedies can either be overstuffed with running gags, overt displays of “love” or overdramatic climaxes, and “This Is Where I Leave You” straddles on the edge of being just that.
Shawn Levy, who last brought us the highly forgettable free Google advertisement campaign, “The Internship,” does a fair job of providing enough screen time for the well-rounded cast’s attempt to execute Jonathan Tropper’s screenplay adaptation of his novel.
Performances by Jason Bateman, Adam Driver, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda and Rose Byrne bring natural talent, not caricatures to their prototypical characters. The story falls on four siblings composed of Corey Stoll (of “House of Cards” fame), Fey, Bateman and Driver summoned to sit shiva for their dead father. For those who aren’t Jewish, sitting shiva is a week long period in which family members gather at one house and mourn together.
The eldest and most intense sibling Paul (Stoll) worked with his father in the family sporting goods business; the youngest, Philip (Driver) is a reckless playboy, who brings his latest girlfriend— a wealthy middle-aged psychologist (Connie Britton) and sister Wendy (Fey), (almost) appears to be the most functional of the lot. Matriarch Hilary (Fonda) is a celebrated child psychologist who’s open book approach doesn’t sit well with the neurotic bunch.
The Altmans all converge to their sleepy (and very white) Westchester County hometown bringing with them plenty of emotional baggage. Paul and his wife April, played by the reliably zany Katheryn Hahn, are dealing with fertility issues. Wendy is fraught with emotional concern for her childhood boyfriend (Timothy Olyphant) – literally the boy next door – who suffers from a brain injury. Philip is attempting to grow out of his man-child persona and then comes Judd.
Judd Altman (Bateman) is on display as the “woe-is-me” sibling who walked in on his wife (Abigail Spencer) with his shock-jock radio boss (Dax Shepard) “celebrating” her birthday in bed, and then reels from the news of his father’s death. Bateman does, however, prove again his talent for balancing touches of comedy and drama.
After the family members push through obvious spats, the movie picks up with some refreshingly nuanced moments among the siblings tackling a crazed, grown-up life—particularly, moments between Judd and Wendy. The pair makes one wish for a similar brother-sister relationship to throw insults at and share advice with at the same time.
Other pros step in to help: Byrne as Penny, Judd’s refreshingly honest romantic interest, Britton as Tracy, an older woman who knows exactly what she has gotten into with her short-term relationship with Phillip; and Fonda as Hillary brings light notes to what could have been another “Monster-in-Law” character.
Between Levy’s direction and Tropper’s writing, the two attempt to keep any Jewish caricatures to a minimum, although attentive viewers will notice a short kugel and lox sequence.
Although the film resolves its conflicts a little too neatly, moviegoers will enjoy the engaging actors as they go through the arcs of their characters, even if their approach to the real world is anything but relatable for most audiences.
The best-selling novel is a pleasurable way to spend a few hours at the movies before the onslaught of more prominent fall films dominate the screen (I’m looking at you, “Gone Girl”).