‘You can never go home again,’ wrote Jack London. This Warner Bros comedy-drama, based on Jonathan Tropper’s bestselling novel, tackles that assumption head on, finding that while families might be exhausting, they’re also the strongest reminder of who we really are. There’s a lot here you’ll have seen before, in soap opera, sitcom and Lifetime movies. What elevates This Is Where I Leave You from the level of, say, a Sunday evening made-for-TV film, into something worth your patronage, is Tropper’s witty script and a simply stellar cast.
Things are going well for Judd Altman (Jason Bateman). He’s got a beautiful wife, a smart NYC apartment and a successful job producing the radio show of an agony uncle/shock jock Wade (Dax Shepard). Of course, life has other plans and kicks Judd square in the crotch; first with the discovery that his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) is sleeping with Wade, before Judd’s sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls to drop the bombshell of their father’s death.
Judd soon find himself back in his childhood home, alongside Wendy, highly strung older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and irresponsible youngest sibling Philip (Adam Driver). And if their lengthy estrangement didn’t bring enough awkwardness to their reunion, their therapist mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) demands that they honour the dying wish of their – Jewish, but atheist – father and sit shiva (spend seven days together, without travel or work).
From Hillary’s insistence – ‘you are all my children again, and you are all grounded’ – springs a family comedy that’s got the same warmth, joy and immense frustrations of spending a significant amount of time with one’s own relatives. Director Shawn Levy’s a huge commercial success, with his Night at the Museum films earning over $1bn globally while recent efforts The Internship and Real Steel were big hits, despite their obvious limitations. He’s still, however, an unexpected choice to helm this ensemble, character-driven tale of a family reconnecting amid the pain of loss. Yet he’s a smart choice, with a steady, confident hand evident from the get-go, as the comedy and tragedy of Judd’s betrayal is deftly handled. He’s also an unobtrusive director, happy to let his talented actors take the rein, only overtly manipulating the audience on a couple of occasions.
Not that the viewer will need much nudging in the direction of laughter or tears. Levy’s cast a great mix of comedic styles, with Driver’s gauche mischief a fine foil for Bateman’s trademark straight man resignation and Fey’s side-eye wit. They’re not just comedy actors though, all (as well as Stoll) capable of eliciting a lump in the throat as easily as a guffaw. Fey, especially, shows that she’s often ill-served in her rare forays into drama, as her genuinely moving scenes with Timothy Olyphant’s tragic ex-boyfriend confirm. It’s sentimental, and might feel more suited to a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, without the quality of the actors.
Fonda’s great fun as the surgically enhanced outspoken matriarch – who, like British writer Julie Myerson, has found literary fame through exposing the secrets of her own family – while the fact that the great Connie Britton, Rose Byrne and Kathryn Hahn are relegated to minor roles exemplifies the quality of this film’s talent roster.
At times, This Is Where I Leave You does everything you’d expect of a film about adult siblings being forced together. There’s a chance to reconnect with old flames. The eruption of longstanding grievances. The reforming of ancient allegiances in a bid to make mischief. But where the movie surpasses its limitations and finds a surprising emotional heft is through the excellent cast and Tropper’s true, touching, human script. It’s chaotic, hilarious, painful, heartbreaking, awkward. It’s just like going home.