This Is Where I Leave You (United States, 2014)

September 18, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
This Is Where I Leave You Poster

This Is Where I Leave You is a card-carrying member of the "family reunion" category of motion pictures wherein circumstances bring together characters whose once-close relationships have grown distant over the years. The mechanism by which this happens is usually a big event such as a party, a wedding, or (as in this case) a funeral. The French excel at this sort of movie but American forays into the subgenre often take on the feel of a lazily scripted sit-com. The difference is one of tone - to do this right, it's necessary to uncover the essential human characteristics of the characters (both good and bad) while avoiding instances of extreme melodrama. This Is Where I Leave You mostly achieves this goal, although there are instances, especially during the last act, when artifice creeps into the narrative in the service of providing a tidy ending.

There's humor in This Is Where I Leave You but it rarely goes too far. It's easy to be impressed by the dramatic capabilities of actors known primarily for lighter fare - in particular, Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, both of whom are terrific. There are also nice turns by soon-to-be-Star Warrior Adam Driver, a perky Rose Byrne, and veteran lightning rod Jane Fonda. The cast melds together and convinces in a way that the higher profile gang in August: Osage County couldn't quite manage.

There's not much story and what there is functions as setup. The Altman clan gathers at the rural New York state house where they lived together for many years as a family before going their separate ways. The occasion is a sad one: the death of the patriarch. Arriving to join the grieving widow, Hillary (Jane Fonda), are the eldest son, Paul (Corey Stoll); the middle boy, Judd (Jason Bateman); the young, rudderless Phillip (Adam Driver); and the only girl, Wendy (Tina Fey). They bring with them their spouses, children, and significant others - except Judd, who is going through a messy divorce. To fulfill their father's last wish, they must sit shiva - or, as Hillary puts it, they're all grounded for the next seven days. This gives them plenty of opportunity to interact with interpersonal dramas playing out against the backdrop of their attempts to come to grips with their father's death and what his absence means for them.

This Is Where I Leave You recalls a pair of '80s films: The Big Chill (about ex-college friends reuniting after the suicide of one of their number) and The Breakfast Club (about high school kids bonding while trapped in detention). Although This Is Where I Leave You is substantially different in specifics from either of those earlier movies, there's a thematic and tonal kinship. Although This Is Where I Leave You addresses serious issues, it does so with a lightness of touch. Unlike the aforementioned August: Osage County, it doesn't wallow in ugliness or delight in people humiliating one another.

The script is a strength. Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his novel, it displays balance between comedy and drama, never leaning too far in one direction or the other. No one throws out jokes or one-liners for the sole purpose of making viewers laugh. As in real life, humor flows naturally from embarrassing or ironic situations rather than being awkwardly shoehorned into the screenplay by a writer who wants to show off his comedic chops. While Judd is unquestionably in a "bad place", the movie doesn't allow him to wallow in self-pity and, as a result, the narrative doesn't bog down. Bateman's performance creates a deeply human character; it's some of the best work he's done in a while. Although This Is Where I Leave You is technically an ensemble piece, the main point-of-view is Judd's, which makes Bateman's contribution key. Even considering some of its late-innings flaws, this is an engaging movie that doesn't mistake histrionics and bile for solid family reunion drama.

This Is Where I Leave You (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2014-09-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1