A couple of summers ago, there was a novel that at a point made my mother-in-law laugh so hard, we feared she might pass out from lack of oxygen. Naturally, as soon as she recovered, everyone on this family vacation asked to be the next to read this dangerously hilarious book This Is Where I Leave You. Next it was my father-in-law, who guffawed so loud it scared the birds nearby into taking flight. Then it was my turn to discover the moment in its first chapter that led me to laugh so hard I teared up. Unfortunately, the first act button that involved a birthday cake being used as a weapon has been cut from the Jonathan Tropper novel's movie adaptation. Fortunately, the blend of heartbreaking moments and hilarity that made up the other 351 other pages of This Is Where I Leave You are largely in tact.
Adapted by Tropper himself, This Is Where I Leave You introduces audiences to the dysfunctional and barely Jewish Altman family. Their father's dying wish was that his children come home and sit shiva--seven days of mourning--with their mother. However, with deep sibling rivalries and lots of skeletons in their collective closets, sitting quietly in mournful reflection soon turns to shouting matches, sexual shenanigans, and the occasional fistfight.
Jason Bateman stars as middle child Judd Altman, who is dealt a devastating blow in the first act when he discovers his wife has been cheating on him with his boss. Homeless, jobless, wifeless, Judd goes to his father's funeral feeling like an utter failure. There he reunites with his pop-psychologist mom (Jane Fonda), his no-nonsense sister Wendy (Tina Fey with her iconic eyerolls and loads of snark), his stern older brother Paul (Corey Stoll in a thankless role), his screw-up little brother Phillip (Adam Driver in a role he seems destined for), and their assortment of children and significant others. Also to be counted among this sparkling ensemble are Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Debra Monk, Rose Byrne, and Ben Schwartz.
With a cast like this, director Shawn Levy had the cards stacked in his favor, especially as the main characters are cast well within the niche expectations of their stars. Bateman is once more a believably flustered everyman. As he strives to figure out a solution to his deeply shitty situation, surrounded by a madhouse of selfish family members, he seems a variant on Arrested Development's Michael Bluth. 30 Rock's Fey is similarly typecast, offered a role where she gets to be the pushy, maternal figure to a bunch of fools. Like she declares in the trailer, "You guys are idiots, but you're my idiots."
House of Cards' Stoll is not typecast, but he's given so little to do here--stuck with simple speeches of regret and responsibility--that his talents are wasted. Jane Fonda is deft and daffy as the matriarch of this clan, though the running gag about her recently augmented breasts gets old long before it stops. But it's Adam Driver who positively steals this movie.
While everyone else is playing well within the expected bounds of commercial dramedy, the Girls star brings his loose-limbed physicality and exuberant energy to the part of the deliciously reckless Phillip, giving this charming effort an element of exciting risk. He sort of seems like he's in a different movie altogether. But considering how Phillip dedicatedly refuses to play by the rules, this choice actually makes tons of sense, character-wise. Most remarkably, while it strains credulity to believe that these very different looking people have any genetic relation, the cast pulls together with such a charged chemistry that they do feel like a family, through better and worse.
I dare not neglect some supportive winsome turns, as this movie's success is entirely dependent on the interplay of its ensemble. Playing an ice-skating townie trapped in a love of all things '80s--including too much eye makeup--is Rose Byrne, who proves a darling scene partner to Bateman. But like Stoll, she's woefully underused. Connie Britton pops in to play the unlikely lover of the eternally flawed Phillip, and brings instant gravitas to the role that makes her arc land when her limited screen time alone would not allow for it. Lastly, a shout out to Ben Schwartz, who is best-known as Parks and Recreation's gregarious douchebag, Jean-Ralphio. Here he plays a young rabbi who strives to be an inspiration to his flock. But around the Altman home, he's the Eli Cash to their Tenenbaums, and so will always be known by his childhood nickname "Boner." His agitation over this is a running joke that never gets old, in part because Schwartz shifts from peaceful man of God to petulant child at breakneck speed.
Lovers of the book will notices some ways the film has toned down the original story's most transgressive elements, all of them predictable revisions. But the core of the Altman clan and the clusterfuck that is their reunion is brought to life with a gleeful irreverence that makes this dramedy warmly entertaining, and just a bit naughty. With so many moving parts, the story zips along, punctuated by tender moments and a few outlandish gags. But best of all, this ensemble sizzles together, exchanging barbs and blows with verve and nerve. There's nothing overly daring going on here, but This Is Where I Leave You is a engaging and fun exploration of the dynamics of the ties that bind and sometimes gag.