“Well, I’m no expert… But I think you’re gonna have to make much larger sacrifices down the road.”
There’s a reason why the concept of the ensemble piece is almost a genre of its own in story telling. When it comes to TV or movies, these stories really do live or die based on the strength of their cast. Seinfeld might have been a show about nothing, but the chemistry between the main cast made ‘nothing’ hilariously entertaining. It’s the same in movies, the slightest, most by the numbers story can be elevated to absolutely compelling if the ensemble clicks just right. I’m not saying This is Where I Leave You is overly slight or by the numbers, but I am saying it could have easily fallen into a blurry, syrupy mess, if it wasn’t for its ensemble cast.
Judd Atlman (Jason Bateman) heads home early one day to surprise his wife for her birthday. When he gets there, he finds her being taken to the Bone Zone by his boss. After a few months of being depressed and growing a beard (the standard movie indicator of depression), he receives a phone call from his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) telling him that their father has died. So it’s back to his home town for the funeral where his mother (Jane Fonda) insists she and all of her children sit shiva, the Jewish tradition of mourning at home for seven days. So now it’s time for the Altman family, complete with repressed older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and black sheep youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) to have the forced family reunion none of them want, but they all obviously need.
Each Altman comes loaded with baggage and issues reaching boiling point. Judd is yet to tell most of his family about his wife’s affair and their imminent divorce. Wendy’s marriage is obviously barley functioning as her work obsessed husband neglects her and their kids, while she obviously pines for her childhood love, Ari (Timothy Olyphant). Paul and his wife (Katherine Hahn as Annie) are struggling to get pregnant, and Phillip’s latest girlfriend, a woman twice his age (the always awesome Connie Britton), is obviously a replica of his mother, he’s just the only one who doesn’t see it. Then, because this is a movie, we need some sort of romantic catharsis for sad sack Judd, which is where Rose Byrne comes in as Penny. Not necessarily an old flame, but there’s obvious chemistry now.
This is Where I Leave is pure melodramatic schmaltz. The romantic relationships are loaded with artificial, movie convolution and faux gravitas, and the little moments of rage that lead to displays of repressed love for each other are convenient beyond belief. But none of that matters, because the Altman clan is so believable as a family. None of these people look even remotely alike genetically, but the chemistry between their siblings and their mother is so palpable, that despite their movie-like surroundings and issues, the Altmans seem like as a real a family as you’d ever meet in the real world.
Add to the history that comes with life long neighbours like Ari and his mother, or Ben Schwartz as the young rabbi who grew up hanging out in the Altman house as a friend of Phillip’s, and the world around this family becomes just as real and believable as the family itself.
But even better than the performances and the chemistry between this sprawling cast, This is Where I Leave You is really funny. That shouldn’t have surprised me. Bateman, Fey, Driver, Hahn and Schwartz have all proven to be funny over and over again. But when the movie is set up with such heavy instigating moment, and such heavy emotion, I guess I assumed it was a collection funny people going for dramatic credibility. This is Where I Leave You proves that the key to heavy emotion is giving the audience the occasional reprieve with solid jokes that still work in the world of the movie and its characters.