Shawn Levy has been producing (and directing) a mix of comedy and drama for some fifteen years. What he does so well is the way he effectively roots his comedy with an affectionate spirit that keeps his stories and characters from becoming overtly juvenile. In other words, there’s a maturity in the art he produces, a heartfelt passion for the characters and the stories he’s creating that help the audience relate to them on a sophisticated level (even when the films themselves aren’t necessarily great). This innate maturity is on full display in his new dramedy, This Is Where I Leave You, where he infects his world with a family of generally comic actors to deliver a low-key — what I’d like to call, quiet — comedy that utilizes the sensibilities of the actors to generate a loving, honest portrait of a dysfunctional family.
After learning that their father has died, a family returns home for the funeral to find out their father’s dying wish was that, even though the family isn’t Jewish, they participate in a Shiva — a week-long mourning period in which the family gathers in their home for seven days and receives visitors. This is the set-up that drives both the drama and the comedy, and Levy does a very powerful balancing act in keeping everything held together.
With any type of film like this, This Is Where I Leave You is an ensemble drama; if any piece of the puzzle is out of place or missing, the whole thing would eventually fall apart (or at the very least, feel wholly incomplete). But even then, there still must be a central focus, and here that focus falls on the shoulders of the middle son, Judd (Jason Bateman). His life is the most complicated, having caught his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer) cheating on him with his friend (and boss), Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard), putting him (and the fact that he doesn’t have any clear memories of his father) in the spotlight among the rest of his grieving family.
This includes sister Wendy (Tina Fey), whom Judd feels most comfortable sharing all of his emotions (and secrets) with. As the middle children of the Altman clan, these two have the strongest bond, elevating them above the pettiness of their other siblings. They are able to talk on to one another on a much deeper level, giving each other advice on love and and life that both are in desperate need of. As Judd starts to hang out with Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), an old friend from high school, Wendy can’t hide from her feelings for her old boyfriend, Horry Callen (Timothy Olyphant), who suffered irreparable brain damage in a car accident that’s made him utterly dependent on his mother, Linda (Debra Monk). Wendy has a solid marriage, a couple of kids and a good job, but she’s never fully let go of Horry. She didn’t want to leave him, but he didn’t want her to stay, not if it meant she would have to give up her life and her dreams for him. She’s comfortable with the life she has, but she’s far from being happy.
Which is what this film, based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper (who also wrote the screenplay), spends the bulk of its attention on — what is true happiness? As Judd explains, the only Altman that’s happy is Wendy’s son, Cole (Cade Lappin), who does nothing but walk around with his little potty-training toilet and go to the bathroom whenever — and wherever — he feels the need. Everyone else may claim to be happy, but they are all hiding some imperfection, some secret they feel makes them unworthy of acquiring authentic joy. Much like elder brother, Paul (Corey Stoll), and his wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn), who try like rabbits to have a baby, doing everything in their power, from different types of treatments to following a calendar more than their own biological needs, to make it happen. But is having a child what will ultimately make them happy, or is it simply putting a strain on their relationship that bleeds into the decisions they make?
The most interesting aspect of this idea is that, no matter how much each character grows throughout their time together as a family, not everyone finds happiness. By choosing to leave a few of the relationships messy, or their evolution incomplete, Levy turns a lot of the cliché-riddled developments (including a twist involving the mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), that anyone with a brain should see coming a mile away) into much more natural outcomes. There are still plenty of instances dealing with letting go, acceptance, finding yourself, and coming to terms with the life you have and the life you want, but as Levy makes clear, that doesn’t automatically mean happiness.
With so much going on, there are bound to be some plots that fall through the cracks. The one that sticks out like a sore thumb in this instance is the story of youngest brother, Phillip (Adam Driver), who invites his older girlfriend (and therapist), Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton), to the house for the week. I felt this story could have been nurtured to a higher degree to give the payoff more emotional power, but as it is, there are only hints of things here and there, and the connection between Phillip and Tracy felt more arbitrary than anything else. The lessons learned from this subplot are treated better through some of the other stories that are going on.
Despite this, the key to making the film work is the chemistry between the main cast, which is absolutely stellar. Each actor is given material that matches their personal sensibilities, helping them feel much more natural within the confines of the script. Bateman as the depressed voice of reason, Fey exhibiting a dry sarcastic love, and Driver jumping feet first into the deep end all combine to develop a strong dynamic that allows them to bounce off of one another as if they’ve known each other their entire lives. Add in supporting players that do a terrific job handling their respective roles as individuals and as part of this loving ensemble, and you get a sweet little slice-of-life portrayal of a typical mid-American family.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include The Boxtrolls and The Equalizer. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.