There are plenty of movies that tell the story of a funeral bringing together a family. In recent weeks, both THE JUDGE and WISH I WAS HERE have touched upon this common trope. Funerals gather people who in some cases haven’t seen each other for years. In the movies, and possibly in life, this is an opportunity to settle scores and to complete unfinished business. Whether it’s an arthouse flick or something more mainstream, filmmakers can’t resist telling the story of adult siblings dealing with their psychological wounds on the occasion of a parent’s death.
In THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, the Altman family have returned home for the funeral of patriarch Mort. Their mother, famous author Hillary (Jane Fonda) tells them their father’s final wish was that the family would sit shiva for him. This means spending seven days together in the family home receiving visitors and mourning the deceased. The Altman offspring are not keen on this. Neither Mort nor Hillary were observant Jews. As their daughter Wendy (Tina Fey) points out, the family’s shiva chairs are set up on the spot where their Christmas tree goes.
All the Altmans are hiding secrets. This is an anathema to Hillary whose celebrity is founded on her first book Cradle And All, a child psychology tome that reported the various deviant behaviours of her children to her readership. “Secrets are cancer to a family!” she yells at them. You can’t help feeling her tell-all approach has made her offspring less keen to reveal the truth now. Judd (Jason Bateman) is trying to keep his divorce under wraps. He has also lost his job. Of all the Altmans, he was seemingly the most together. Now his father’s death is like a final kick in the ribs for a man who is already down.
Judd is the main character, although there are many other storylines unravelling through the movie. Judd’s siblings are Wendy, who is married with children, Paul (Corey Stoll), who is married and trying for children and his youngest brother Philip (Adam Driver), who has a succession of girlfriends. The siblings jointly own Mort’s sports store business, but the largest share is Paul’s who has run the store for many years. Philip wants to be part of the business and this angers Paul who sees their younger brother as essentially useless.
The relationships and power plays of childhood and adolescence are re-established remarkably quickly. Philip is the baby of the family and is happily less mature and responsible than the others. His childhood friend Charles (Ben Schwartz) is now their rabbi, but Philip insists on referring to him by his former nickname “Boner”. The main part of this story is how the Altmans and their various spouses, significant others and lovers will sort themselves out. Everyone misses Mort, but now they have to create a new configuration of their family without him.
The screenplay of THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his book of the same name. Tropper’s book is 300 plus pages long and he is on record explaining how he removed flashback and inner monologue material to create a more linear storyline. He has intentionally made the humour a little less dark and acerbic. The director Shawn Levy is best known for lighter, breezier fare such as both NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM films, THE INTERSHIP (2013) and DATE NIGHT (2010) where he worked with Tina Fey previously.
The cast is excellent. Bateman plays the amiable, intelligent white-collar guy he always does, but this time he is lost and broken-hearted. Fey who often plays the female version of those Bateman-type roles makes sense as his sister. She gets the chance to be a little darker and more sarcastic here because her part is a supporting one. Adam Driver who everyone but me has seen and loved in television’s GIRLS is terrific. His energy in playing the hedonistic Philip is a joy to watch. Ben Schwartz, best known to audiences for his work as Jean Ralphio in TV’s PARKS AND RECREATION, tones it down considerably as the rabbi. It’s good to see him not playing the provocateur for once. Dax Shepard gets laughs as a narcissistic shock-jock. Connie Britton and Timothy Olyphant both have good emotional moments in their scenes. Jane Fonda, who has often improved so-so material in comedies like GEORGIA RULE and MONSTER IN-LAW, seemed destined to impersonate a variety of feisty grandmothers for the rest of her career, but she does some lovely work as Hillary. When she says a simple line like, “I wanted all my kids under one roof,” it rings with a truth that comes from her life experience and fifty-plus years working at her craft.
Some may quibble that THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is too much in the middle; too middle-brow, middle-class and middle-of-the-road. I think it can be described in this way, but I feel it will speak to certain audiences who want to see a comedy where a family is struggling to work its way back to equilibrium. I found it funny and more often than not it hit on emotional and psychological truths that I recognized.
THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is in Australian cinemas now. It runs for 103 minutes. My rating is 7/10.