In the book of Genesis, when Joseph mourned the death of his father, Jacob, it took him seven days. When a Jewish family is sitting shiva, the Hebrew word for seven, they’re engaged in a week-long mourning.
In the comedy/drama This is Where I Leave You from director Shawn Levy, the Altman family – changed from Foxman in author Jonathan Tropper’s book – has just lost its father. According to mom (Jane Fonda), dad’s dying wish was for the whole family to return home together immediately following the burial and stay for seven days, sitting shiva. “But mom’s not Jewish,” insists Wendy (Tina Fey), “And dad was an atheist Jew.” Nevertheless, it’s what their father wanted and sitting shiva is what the Altmans, including the spouses, are going to do for the next seven days, whether they want to or not. With the exception of mom, they really don’t want to.
If This is Where I Leave You can boast of one thing it’s the ensemble cast. It’s a solid one, headed by Jane Fonda in one of her best roles since she made that big screen comeback after her long, fifteen year absence. Here she plays Hilary Altman, a successful child psychologist whose hit book, Cradle and All, described her children’s habits and private lives in detail, much to the continual embarrassment of the children, now adults. She’s also just had a boob job.
The family has four, squabbling siblings. First, there’s big sister Wendy (Fey) who on the surface appears to be the most stable and possibly the most logical of the bunch, even if she’s somewhat befuddled by mom’s sudden adherence to Jewish custom. “Mom,’ she complains to Hilary, “You’re sitting in the same place you put our Christmas tree.”
Then there’re the three brothers. The oldest brother, Paul (Corey Stoll) believes he should be the one to take sole control of dad’s family sporting goods business. Spoiling all of Paul’s potential business plans is youngest brother, Philip (Adam Driver) who arrives at the house with his cougar girlfriend, Tracy (Connie Britton). “Get out while you still can,” daughter-in-law Kathryn Hahn warns the older woman. And finally, there’s the middle brother around whom everyone revolves; Judd (Jason Bateman). This may be an ensemble piece, but the film is really Judd’s story; everyone else supports.
When we first meet Judd he’s rushing home after work to surprise his wife with cake and lighted candles, but the surprise is about to be his. When he enters the bedroom he finds his boss in bed with his wife. “How long?” a numbed Judd asks. “A year,” responds the wife. When Judd blows on the candles of the cake, he’s not just killing the flame, he’s extinguishing the marriage.
It’s soon apparent that mom’s insistence on the family sitting shiva is not so much out of respect for religious custom, it’s a ploy to keep everyone together for as long as possible in order to sort out all of those annoying family differences, and every character, even the outsiders who drop by for their moment to share in the Altman’s muted grief, bring their baggage.
The running joke of the siblings coming to terms with mom’s new breasts raises good laughs – Bateman’s sidelong glances at Fonda’s new cleavage as he tries not to look are priceless – plus Adam Driver’s immature stoner of a brother who can’t keep his mouth shut even if it was permanently covered in duct tape is genuinely funny. But once you get past the halfway mark, the rhythm of the humor changes slightly and poignancy instead of wit takes over. Judd reunites with old flame, Penny (the ever delightful Rose Byrne). When Bateman visits her small house away from the madding crowd of his family, Byrne asks if he thinks he should be here. “I don’t know why but I can’t think of a place I’d rather be more,” he replies.
Where the film flounders is when it follows familiar patterns. The temporary breakup in the growing relationship between Bateman and Byrne seems like an unnecessary and annoying conflict to overcome; a late revelation regarding Fonda’s new found relationship preference feels false, plus isn’t it time to call a moratorium on that moment when old reefer is found in a jacket pocket and family members get comically stoned? In real life, a smoker would probably hang out and relax; in the movies he acts as though tripping on something hallucinogenic.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 103 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)