This family puts the fun in ‘dysfunction’
Director Shawn Levy, whose previous efforts include the funny but lightweight Night at the Museum and the mediocre Google commercial (er, film) The Internship might not seem like an obvious choice to bring Jonathan Tropper’s more literary serio-comic novel This is Where I Leave You to the big screen. But Levy has the good fortune to be working with a screenplay written by Tropper himself, as well as an extraordinary cast of both up and coming and tried and true talent. This collaboration has yielded one of the year’s most highly enjoyable pictures.
Fans of Tropper’s book will not be disappointed; the film closely matches the book, both in its plot and its tone. The story concerns the four adult Altman siblings, who return to their small hometown in upstate New York to sit shiva at the request of their mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda) upon their father’s death. The film captures the various conflicts, resentments, and shifting dynamics among the siblings, their mother, and an assortment of romantic partners, colleagues, and old friends.
The set up itself is comical, since, we are told, Hillary isn’t even Jewish, and Mort, the deceased husband and father, was Jewish by ancestry, but a lifelong atheist. Needless to say, then, the forced structure of the Jewish tradition takes a toll on all concerned, but hits Judd, the film’s protagonist (Jason Bateman), especially hard. He returns to the family with a host of major problems he’s not yet ready to share. He is not alone, however; the rest of his siblings, oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn), sister Wendy (Tiny Fey) and her husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) and youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) and his new girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton), all have issues of their own to bring to the family table.
What unfolds is a dramedy of the best sort; one scene may have you aching from laughing so hard, while another may find you wiping away tears. The film succeeds as a meditation on grief and loss, and, perhaps even more significantly, as a poignant and trenchant look at the complicated relationships that often exist between siblings. Not since Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me has a film so deftly explored this complex and nuanced bond. Levy and Tropper show us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that no matter how old you are, how much you’ve accomplished personally or professionally, or how far away you’ve moved from home, once you return to that place you grew up and surround yourself with those with knew you then, all bets are off, and suddenly you feel like you’re 12 again. The four siblings tease, harass, and push each other’s buttons in ways that only adults who have known each other since birth can. Inside jokes, long-buried resentments, and secrets all come to the surface in emotionally resonant and comically accurate scenes (in one of the film’s best and most realistic jokes, for example, the siblings can’t stop calling their former classmate, now the town rabbi (Ben Schwartz, appropriately exasperated), by his high school nickname – Boner – much to his dismay).
Of course, these themes wouldn’t come across as well as they do if the casting weren’t stellar; we need to believe that the principal characters are indeed related. A debate has long raged that an “Outstanding Achievement in Casting” award should be added to the Oscars, and if there were ever a film that completely exemplifies this notion, it’s this one. Casting director Cindy Tolan should be commended for the brilliant job she has done here. Casting Tina Fey and Jason Bateman as brother and sister is a stroke of genius. Not only do they look alike, but their rapport is so easy and natural that you don’t doubt for a second that they spent their formative years together. And while they each have impressive comedic resumes, both are proving themselves equally adept at dramatic roles, too (as Bateman already demonstrated in his excellent turn in last year’s terrific Disconnect). Fey strikes all the right notes of wistfulness, regret, guilt, and sorrow in her scenes with an old high school boyfriend (Timothy Olyphant) who still lives in town.
Driver, too, is an inspired choice to play reckless youngest brother Phillip, who seems to know that his insouciant charm compensates for his irresponsibility, at least in the eyes of his family. And Corey Stoll, who looks the least like the others physically, is still believable as the put-upon oldest brother Paul, who has taken over the family business and never let go of his big-brother persona. Scenes of the three brothers always ring true – whether they are physically fighting, insulting each other, or sharing a joint and reminiscing, a remarkable sense of deep connection always comes through.
The supporting players are also top notch. Fonda is a gifted comedienne who has a part worthy of her talents here. She gets some great moments to display both her comedic and dramatic acting chops, and has one particularly moving scene with Bateman that will remind you why she’s an Oscar winner. Rose Byrne is lovely and warm as an old classmate of Judd’s who never left town, and Connie Britton gives a raw, brave performance as a beautiful, successful woman who can’t wrap her head around the fact that she’s become attracted to the much younger, less intelligent Phillip. Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Kathryn Hahn, and Abigail Spencer round out the cast nicely in roles that, though minor, are always richly fleshed out and perceptively portrayed.
The film’s one weakness is perhaps its ending, which is just slightly clichéd. The ride to get to it is so much fun, though, that this flaw is easily overlooked. Levy, Tropper, and Tolan have crafted a smart, funny, beautiful film about families that showcases all their attendant weirdness and affection. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to ring up your brothers or sisters when you get out of the theater. They’ll be glad to hear from you.
This is Where I Leave You opens today at Bay Area theaters.