You laugh in spite of yourself in This Is Where I Leave You, a potty-mouthed comedy with enough exasperation, aggravations, long-standing grievances and get-me-outta-here moments of family stress to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to endure large clan gatherings that might have lasted a bit too long. The fact that many people will find something or someone to identify with here, even if they don’t have a mother with big new boobs prone to talking about sex most of the time the way Jane Fonda does here, should make Shawn’s Levy’s first R-rated comedy a much-needed hit for Warner Bros. with the Meet the Parents audience.
Best-selling novelist and Banshee co-creator Jonathan Tropper had the clout to adapt his own book for the screen, and he gets right down to business in the opening scenes with the double-whammy of having mild-mannered New York radio producer Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) playing hide the sausage with Judd’s radio shock-jock boss (Dax Shepard), then learn that his father has died.
Looking for a way to force the Altman family to stay together for more than the minimum time necessary to bury the old man, Tropper comes up with the contrivance that, even though Dad wasn’t an observant Jew (and Mom’s a WASP), the deceased insisted that his family sit shiva for seven days at the rambling suburban homestead. “You are all grounded,” their glamorous mother Hilary (Fonda) announces, to the dismay of her squabbling children Judd, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver). Wendy’s objection that she’s “sitting in the same spot where we put the Christmas tree” carries no weight with imperious Mom.
This is not a family in which laying low and keeping your troubles to yourself are an option. A child psychologist who 25 years earlier became famous by writing a huge best-seller, Cradle & All, in which she laid out every family secret about her own kids, to their eternal distress, matriarch Hilary sees nothing inappropriate about using the mourning period to rave once again about her late husband’s sexual attributes and prowess. “Secrets are cancer to a family,” she insists to her kids lined all in a row beside her.
Paul is the boringly responsible son who jumps whenever baby-desperate wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) insists that he try to impregnate her. Wendy, whose marriage is none-to-great, tells everyone else what’s best for them, more than living up to the bossypants sobriquet of the actress who plays her. And then there’s Phillip, a man-child who drives a hot car and shows up late at the funeral with a beautiful woman (Connie Britton) nearly twice his age but behaves like an attention-needy child.
Then there are the ones who got away. For the depressed Judd, this would be Penny (Rose Byrne), a lovely high school sweetheart not averse to taking things a step further all these years later. And never far from Wendy’s mind is neighbor heartthrob Horry (Timothy Olyphant), a gentle soul whose accidental brain damage leaves him with little memory.
Having placed all these emotional balls in the air, Tropper turns on the wind machine to make them ricochet all over the place. The relentless sexual references are so numerous as to make it seem that the writer set a daily quota for himself, and Wendy’s overbearing I-know-better attitude leaves little question why her husband makes himself scarce. Everyone here is obnoxious to one degree or another, but enough of it amusing in an appalling sort of way that it’s difficult to not be at least partly won over by the brashness of the compulsively uncensored talk and behavior.
Particularly farcical is Annie’s stealth mission to the basement, where Judd sleeps wedged onto a fold-out bed, to resolve her pregnancy issue once and for all (the two were an item before she married Paul). Things only get more complicated when Judd’s straying wife shows up, reconciliation in mind, but with the horndog d.j. not far behind. In time-honored farcical tradition, Tropper has a topper up his sleeve for the very end, and it’s a nice one you don’t see coming.
Looking pretty darn good, thank you very much, Fonda dominates every scene she’s in; this is her most successful film appearance since she returned to acting in 2005 after a 15-year layoff, as well as a reminder of her screen roots in comedy. Playing it low-keyed compared to everyone else in the cast, Bateman maintains just enough sympathy as a bit of a sad-sack who admits he’s never taken a risk in life, while Britton excels in the film’s one touching scene, in which her smart older woman serenely faces the facts about the mistake she’s made with the immature Phillip. The other performers well know where the laughs are and go for them expediently.
Levy’s orchestration of the mayhem is silky smooth.
Production: Spring Creek, 21 Laps
Cast: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, Ben Schwartz
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenwriter: Jonathan Tropper, based on his novel
Producers: Paula Weinstein, Shawn Levy, Jeffrey Levine
Executive producers: Mary McLaglen, Jonathan Tropper, James Packer, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Ford Wheeler
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editor: Dean Zimmerman
Music: Michael Giacchino
Rated R, 104 minutes