On one level, there is nothing particularly new about much of what This is Where I Leave You has to say about the resentments, rivalries and regrets that lurk beneath the surface of any family unit. Real world families are far from the idealised version portrayed in television programs such as The Waltons and The Brady Bunch; they are a series of complex relationships in which the various players are in conflict with not only the other members of the clan, but their own fears, failings and insecurities. Yes, This is Where I Leave You covers some of the same territory as other films of this ilk, but a terrific cast interact with real warmth and humour to produce an examination of family dysfunction that is amusing, scarily familiar and ultimately uplifting enough to offer some hope to those mired in their own assortment of family melodramas.
When, following the death of the family patriarch, a family reunites in mourning, it isn’t long before hostilities emerge as this disparate group try to not only reconcile themselves with the death of their father/husband, but also with their own shortcomings and the myriad issues that have pushed them apart. With the exception of the widow Hillary (Jane Fonda), nobody is happy when they are told they are expected to sit Shiva – a Jewish tradition that requires first-degree family members to gather in the home of the deceased for seven days to receive visitors. The fact that nobody involved actively practices the faith – “Mom, you’re sitting in the exact same spot we put our Christmas tree” – only adds to their resentment about what is expected of them. Needless to say, being cooped up together quickly brings tensions to the surface as they each deal with their loss and the myriad issues through which they are trying to navigate.
The unofficial but obvious leader of this family unit is Wendy Altman, played by the fabulous Tina Fey in what is the most serious role we have yet to see from her. It is Wendy who is forced to mediate as tensions rise, all the while dealing with her own asshole husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) and a sad chapter from her past that remains omnipresent in her life. Other than genetics, the three brothers seemingly have very little in common. Corey Stoll is Paul, the buttoned-down eldest who runs the family sports store and is failing in his efforts to impregnate wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn), with Jason Bateman’s Judd a shell of his former self, having lost his job after finding wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) shagging his boss, an arrogant radio host played by Dax Shepard. Meanwhile, ne’er-do-well youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) arrives with new – and much older – girlfriend (Connie Britton) in tow. Throw in damaged neighbour Horry (a subdued yet affective performance from Timothy Olyphant) and his mother Linda (Debra Monk) and you have this eclectic mix of characters that collectively make for some terrific observations on life, love and opportunities lost. There are moments of poignancy and pathos amid the humour and director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night) strikes a perfect balance between the serious moments and those that are somewhat less so.
As you would expect from such a strong ensemble cast, the performances are solid with Fey and Bateman particularly good as the two siblings who most understand one another. Fonda is fun as the forthright but not entirely honest Hillary, while Driver’s Phillip is not too far removed from his Girls persona. However, Rose Byrne almost upstages everybody with another fabulous comic turn as Penny, a blast from Judd’s past who emerges as a much more rounded character than first impressions might suggest. Yes, there are less successful elements in the mix, with Britton in particular given little to do as the supposedly intelligent – but not too smart – Tracey. Ultimately, This is Where I Leave You resonates because we can relate. After all, we can’t choose our family and there are a great many people who will correlate the jealousies, insecurities and sacrifices taking place here with aspects of their own familial relationships. It is the reality and the relatedness of what we are seeing that makes This is Where I Leave You such a hilariously heartbreaking experience.