Thanks to a quality ensemble cast and a willing director, This Is Where I Leave You covers overly familiar territory in a refreshingly entertaining way.
In This Is Where I Leave You, radio producer Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is shattered when he finds out his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) has been unfaithful, and that the perfect life he thought he had was actually a lie. Things don't get an easier from there; Judd's dad dies soon after the collapse of his marriage, forcing him back under one roof with his crazy family.
The collection of characters include Judd's boundary-crossing shrink mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda); his bossy sister, Wendy (Tina Fey); stick-in-the-mud older brother, Paul (Corey Stoll); and free-spirited (read: immature) younger brother, Phillip (Adam Driver). Tasked with sitting Shiva for seven days in respect for the deceased, the Altmans reluctantly discover (through secrets revealed and conflicts finally confronted) that they are in need of help with love, life and themselves; the kind of help that only family can provide.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper (Banshee) - with the film screenplay written by Tropper himself - This Is Where I Leave You is a familiar tale of estranged family members coming together and helping one another grow. However, thanks to a fantastic ensemble cast and some of the best filmmaking to ever come out of director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel), the film is a highly enjoyable entry in the family dramedy sub-genre.
It's hard to believe at first that this film is the product of the same director behind such films as The Interview, Date Night and Real Steel - that is, until one recognizes the seasoned confidence in the deft hand that guides the movie along a tonal tightrope, balanced perfectly between the dramatic and humorous. All of the aforementioned Levy films offered heart and insight on real life issues along with their high-concept premises - so it shouldn't be all that surprising that, with a more subdued and grounded premise, the director is able to focus more on refinement, rather than construction. That includes drawing the best performances out of his cast, and shaping and sequencing each character arc and scene into an easy-flowing and constantly entertaining cinematic experience.
Visually, this is again Levy's most subdued project in a long time - but the basics never fail when used properly. Everything in This Is Where I Leave You looks crisp and nice, with shots and angles that occasionally offer some memorably different or exciting imagery. There are also plenty of reoccurring visual gags that help frame and develop the narrative, while simultaneously offering deeper amusement to eagle-eyed cinephile types.
As stated, when it's time to get serious Levy transitions the tone seamlessly while still maintaining an overall consistency so that both halves - comedy and drama - feel like they fit into this world, and are set in proper balance (more laughs than tears, but the serious subject matter still manages to tug the heartstrings).
Tropper's adaptation of his own novel turns out to be a highly effective choice (as opposed to the disaster it could've been). The author proves able to whittle away the dense material needed to fill a novel, in favor of seizing upon the main narrative, character, and thematic arcs needed to convey the primary thrust of the story.
The dialogue is sharp, the humor is on point (and often hilariously bawdy), and even with an overstuffed cast of characters - the five Altmans, each with a respective love interest (or two) - most of the character arcs are brought to some kind of satisfying close (though a few do get away without much fulfillment or conclusion). On the whole, though, there is enough good material at the core of the film to make the primary journey (Judd's) a worthwhile one.
What ultimately pushes This Is Where I Leave You to excellence is the chemistry of the ensemble cast. Bateman's deadpan everyman persona works well when surrounded by such strong co-stars; Fey's feisty wit is as sharp as ever; and Stoll is good at playing unlikable. The biggest scene-stealers, however, are Girls star Adam Driver and Jane Fonda, who can count many of the movie's most hilarious and/or emotional moments between them.
The supporting cast is rounded out with good (if underutilized) performances. Kathryn Hahn puts a saccharine smile on an otherwise serious role of a woman trying desperately to get pregnant; Connie Britton seems to be in her own character drama, playing Phillip's more mature (and wiser) shrink/girlfriend; same goes for Abigail Spencer, as Judd's conflicted ex-wife. Dax Shepard is dynamic and funny as the host of Bateman's radio show; Timothy Olyphant is understatedly strong as Wendy's mentally handicapped ex-love; and Rose Byrne is, as usual, a charismatic chameleon playing Penny, Judd's quirky and cutesy free-spirited love interest.
Thanks to a quality ensemble cast and a willing director, This Is Where I Leave You covers overly familiar territory in a refreshingly entertaining way. It's an odd tonal balance, but the film manages to hold it steady - and then, tell a heartfelt story that hits more than it misses. Not enough clout for awards season contention, perhaps, but one of the more fun family dramadies to come along in awhile. To call it "must-see" theatrical viewing would be a stretch - but as a matinee or future rental, it's a winner.
This Is Where I Leave You is now in theaters. It is 103 minutes long, and is Rated R for language, sexual content and some drug use.