Dysfunctional families have been a key element of a lot of films. Last year, there was the multiple award-nominated film ‘August: Osage County’ and it has also been prevalent in films like ‘The Fighter’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. This concept has also been a part of multiple TV shows. In fact, it’s pretty much a given that almost every major TV sitcom, whether it be live-action or animated, will center on a dysfunctional family as it has been proven by shows like ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Arrested Development’, and ‘Family Guy’. And of course, the dysfunctional family plotline is the key focus of ‘This is Where I Leave You’, directed by Shawn Levy (with a film that is a definite change of pace for him as it is his first R-rated film after working on multiple family-friendly films like the ‘Night at the Museum’ movies) and based off of the 2009 book of the same name by Jonathan Tropper. The family of this film is very much a dysfunctional family so if you’re not a fan of a whole heck of a lot of arguing, this film is probably not for you. But ‘This is Where I Leave You’ does manage to provide a really solid amount of laughs primarily thanks to its great ensemble cast. But what’s even better is how this movie manages to find a good balance of comedy and drama, something that’s not exactly that easy to do. But this film manages to do it and do it pretty well.
On the day of his 3rd wedding anniversary, Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) unfortunately finds out the hard way that his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) is having an affair with his boss Wade (Dax Shepard) when he walks in on them having sex in their apartment. As if things couldn’t get any worse, a few weeks later he gets a call from his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) who tells him that their father has just died. They then return to their hometown where they reunite with their mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) and their two brothers, Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver). After the funeral, they learn that as his last request, their father wanted them to mourn him through the Jewish tradition of Shiva, in which the family of the deceased gather and sit for a period of seven days in mourning. Even though the family isn’t actually Jewish, the siblings find themselves forced into doing it anyway when their mom ends up grounding them. So now that they’re all stuck under the same roof again having to honor the period of Shiva, the dysfunctional siblings end up starting to reconnect with one another as each member finds themselves having to deal with not only the loss of their father but also the current conflicts in their lives.
As is common in any dysfunctional family story, there is quite a lot of bickering amongst the Altman siblings and most of the film’s humor comes from the awkward moments that usually occur during these scenes. Overall, the film does have a pretty solid amount of humor though of course like with every comedy not all of the jokes hit. In the case of this film, it’s mostly in regards to the ‘gross-out’ moments in the film, like this one recurring gag in which the young son of one of the siblings keeps going to the bathroom in this little portable toilet that he always carries around. Thankfully, these moments don’t dominate the film’s humor. But ultimately the film’s greatest strength is that even amidst all of the arguing and gross-out moments, it plays things seriously when it needs to be. After all, this is a ‘dramedy’ about a family coping with the death of a loved one, a subject that isn’t and never will be funny. Thankfully this is not where the film’s humor comes from and the film manages to find a good balance of the humor and the drama, something that isn’t always easy to do when it comes to dramedies. Even though there are quite a lot of scenes where the Altman family is arguing with each other, there are also plenty of scenes in which they bond and these scenes are actually really touching and sweet.
Of course, this is mostly thanks to the film’s terrific ensemble cast. Their camaraderie with one another is superb and their relationships with each other feel genuine, hence why the scenes of them bonding are as strong as they are. Bateman and Fey’s more straight-faced attitudes help bring a nice balance to the crazier characters in the film, like Phillip for instance. Driver is easily one of the biggest standouts of the film in the role of the youngest of the Altman siblings which of course means that he doesn’t always act mature and Driver has quite a lot of charisma in the role. Fonda is also one of the film’s major standouts; most of her material is in relation to her character’s recent boob job which of course is a recurring joke throughout the film. But she also brings the proper motherly instinct that the role requires. As for the rest of the cast, some admittedly could’ve been given larger roles in the film, like Rose Byrne, who has really proven himself to be an excellent comedic talent earlier this year in ‘Neighbors’, as Judd’s former love interest from high school (Byrne and Bateman do have really nice chemistry) and even Corey Stoll, who kind of makes the smallest impression compared to his three sibling co-stars, but overall the cast is superb from top to bottom.
‘This is Where I Leave You’ can be quite wacky at times, as one would expect from a film centered on a dysfunctional family. But when it needs to, the film smartly tones down the craziness and as for this film being a dramedy, it’s one of the better ones that I’ve seen because it does do a really great job at balancing the humorous moments with the more serious moments. And those serious moments when the usually bickering Altmans start to reconnect with one another provide the heart of the film. Of course, this is primarily thanks to the film’s terrific ensemble cast. Not only do they have great camaraderie with one another but that also makes the relationships between their characters feel very much genuine from an emotional standpoint. Despite the occasional immature or gross-out moment, this is easily one of director Shawn Levy’s most mature films to date, if not the most. I haven’t read the book this was based on so I can’t say much about how faithful it is to the book (although I have heard about a scene from the book that got cut involving a cake that seems like a really funny situation but sadly it’s not in the film) but overall ‘This is Where I Leave You’ is a nice solid piece of entertainment that not only has a good amount of laughs but also a really good amount of heart as well.