One of the overriding messages of almost any film festival is “Wow, families are screwed up.”
What makes a dysfunctional family film work is when the specifics of how one particular family is broken manages to somehow illuminate something universal about how difficult that dynamic can be overall. There are times when I feel like I should call my parents and yell at them for being normal and loving and taking great care of me because maybe I'd be a more tormented and successful artist if only they'd been selfish dicks.
At last year's Toronto Film Festival, one of the hottest tickets was “August: Osage County,” with John Wells adapting the Tracy Letts play as an “Oh, my god, Meryl Streep is great” vehicle. I was in that initial line last year for about an hour, surrounded by people who were positively frantic to get in, and they seemed genuinely upset by the idea of not making it into the theater. Afterwards, thought, it seems fair to call the reaction “muted,” and small wonder. In adapting the deservedly highly-praised play by Letts, many of the choices made defanged the material and turned fairly richly written characters into surface-level cameos, blunting the impact of the piece as a whole.
It's also fair to say that the film many of them were hoping they were going to see last year is pretty much exactly what “This Is Where I Leave You” delivers this year: an audience-friendly white people's problems movie with an absolutely spot-on cast making the most of the material. Fans of Jonathan Tropper's novel will recognize much of what they liked, although it feels somewhat stripped down and simplified to me, happier to land a punchline that anything deeper. When you've got a cast that includes Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Ben Schwartz, Adam Driver, Kathryn Hahn, Rose Byrne, Dax Shepard, and more, you can't really be faulted for leaning into the natural comic rhythms that a cast like that establishes, and director Shawn Levy certainly seems to be delighted by the work they're all doing here.
Judd (Bateman), Wendy (Fey), Phillip (Driver), and oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll) are brought together by the death of their father, whose last request seems odd considering how casual the entire family's approach to religion seems to be: he wants them all to sit shiva together for him. That would be hard enough if it were just the four children, but you factor in the presence of their famous (and famously-embarrassing) mother Hillary (Fonda), and it seems like it's going to take a miracle to get the Altmans together for those full seven days.
That's pretty much it in terms of plot. Everything else that happens in this very busy movie has to do with the various problems that the Altmans each have in their lives, the various things that are causing each of them pain or sorrow. Judd, the main character in the film, discovers his wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard) as the film opens, then learns that they'd been sleeping together for a full year, so when he shows up at the funeral, he's a fresh raw wound. Wendy seems like the most grounded of the group, and her big problem in the film involves her high school boyfriend Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who was the love of her life until he suffered a debilitating head injury that seems to have rendered him the same kind of movie-vague “slow” as Robert Downey Jr.'s brother in “The Judge.” Phillip is pretty much a tailored fit for Adam Driver, who shows up at the funeral with his new girlfriend, played by Connie Britton. He's the perpetual screw-up, and as soon as we meet his mother, his relationship with his older girlfriend starts to look creeeeeeeeeeepy. Fonda scores some big laughs in the film, especially in scenes that focus on her unnaturally augmented chest, and she also manages to land some of the emotional beats that actually ground the film.
“This Is Where I Leave You” definitely suffers from that tendency that films like this have to solve everything instead of suggesting that this is just a part of life. By the time the film wraps up, things feel like they've gotten better for everybody, and I guess that's where the wish fulfillment part of things kicks in. We'd all like to think that all it takes to fix a broken family is a few days in close proximity, but it rarely actually works like that. Still, for Shawn Levy, this is a strong movie. This and “Real Steel” both seem to suggest that he is capable of putting together something that is both slick and mainstream and crowd-pleasing, but that doesn't have to be the kind of crass that has put me off some of his movies. Michael Giacchino's score is supporting instead of saccharine, thank god, and it's all very handsomely photographed by Terry Stacey. In the end, the main appeal of a film like this is watching a cast this dense run each other through their comic paces, and whether it's the ongoing torture of Rabbi Grodner (Schwartz) who they all knew as Boner in high school or Kathryn Hahn's attempted seduction of her brother-in-law or Fonda's inability to close her robe, the film is often quite funny, and just real enough that we may recognize ourselves in some small way in this family.
“This Is Where I Leave You” opens in theaters September 19th.