Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 7, 2014 as part of our TIFF 2014 coverage.
We know Judd Altman. He’s the guy in the movie that looks and acts like he has it all figured out, but who’s about to find out – quite suddenly, in fact, and by way of some sort of dramatic event that would never happen quite that way in real life – that nothing is actually as it seems. We know Judd Altman. We’ve seen Judd Altman plenty of times before. But is there anything new to this particular Judd Altman?
Based on Jonathan Tropper’s novel of the same name, Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You explores what happens to Judd (Jason Bateman) after the rug is pulled, spectacularly and swiftly, out from underneath him. But Levy’s overstuffed and unfocused feature is unable to give Judd the attention he deserves – or, at least the attention necessary to really engage us in his plight – and is instead stuck telling stories about all the Altmans as they handle tragedy (big and small) together. When we first meet Judd, he’s just about to discover that his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) is cheating on him with his sleazeball boss, and has been for quite some time. Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard) is a shock jock deejay (his show, which is also technically Judd’s show, is called “Man Up,” and it involves him yelling a lot about what things men should do, which apparently means being incredibly obnoxious), and is quite easily the worst possible person that Quinn could engage in a little extramarital action with. But things are about to get worse for Judd, even as they get (moderately) better for the audience.
Time passes strangely in This Is Where I Leave You (an odd tic of the film that proves to be even weirder as the narrative progresses and Levy attempts to build the entire thing around a very specific time constraint), but Judd’s beard growth and crappy apartment indicate that he and Quinn have been separated for awhile by the time the next blunt force upheaval strikes him. Judd’s dad is dead – explained by a wailing Tina Fey as such: “DAD IS DEAD!” – and he needs to come home to sit shiva (seven days of mourning) with his entire family. This is a great time to keep the secret of his impeding divorce to himself, right?
The Altman clan isn’t a very happy one – and, no, that can’t really be blamed on the recent death of their father, as it seems to be a long-time thing – and slamming all these miserable pieces together for forced family time doesn’t seem like the best way to make anyone feel better. Of course, in Levy’s lightweight world, it’s a source of great humor, wacky hijinks and even a few people getting high in a temple during a heartfelt service. Surprisingly, only one person in the film is actually suffering from brain damage.
At least the cast exhibits a strong familial chemistry – Bateman and Fey are especially good at occupying the lived in familiarity of people who know each other best but maybe don’t see each other enough – and the Altmans at large (including Jane Fonda as their sexually free mother, Corey Stoll as the uptight eldest brother and Kathryn Hahn as his lovely wife) are extraordinarily engaging to watch pick and pluck at each other. As Phillip, the youngest Altman and bonafide baby, Adam Driver gets the majority of the film’s best lines, and he delivers them with the kind of spark and pop that the actor brings to all his roles. He’s easily the best thing about an otherwise airy and forgettable feature.
Like the film, Tropper’s novel is primarily focused on Judd, with a number of subplots that entangle the various siblings drifting in and out. Tropper has excised a few from his final screenplay, but he should have gone further to cut out or at least further refine a few of them. A bit centered on Judd and an ex-girlfriend (or just a friend? a random admirer from his high school years? it’s never quite clear) is especially grating, and even Rose Byrne as his potential paramour Penny can’t save a thinly written and often annoying character.
Much of the film’s exposition – even and especially the most obvious and unnecessary bits – is delivered via on-the-nose conversation that bogs down the flow of both the film as a whole and individual conversations in particular. “I have brain injury,” says the Altman’s neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who we already know has a brain injury based on the giant scar on his head and the delicate manner in which his mother treats him. “Hi, son,” says Mama Altman. “Hey, Mom,” the child says back. “Your shirt is on inside out,” Judd tells Phillip, as his tag literally flaps in the breeze.
And yet This Is Where I Leave You has enough modest charms to keep it chugging right along, including a smattering of genuinely emotional sequences and plenty of jocular jokes and gags. These fake Altmans are good together, at least when things are played light, and it is satisfying enough for a quick visit, not an extended stay.
The Upside: Strong chemistry between the cast, Adam Driver and Jane Fonda are particularly good, scattered moments of emotional resonance, captures the loose craziness of a wacky family without being over the top.
The Downside: Frequently plays it too broad, Tina Fey’s dramatic work is weak, a number of unnecessary subplots should have been excised in the adaptation process, piles on obvious exposition.
On the Side: The film was originally set to be directed by Adam Shankman, with a cast that included Bateman in his role, alongside Zac Efron, Malin Akerman, Leslie Mann, Jason Sudeikis and Goldie Hawn.