This Is Where I Leave You is as serious as it is funny
I love comedy, in a close second I love a good dramatic story. If you happen to combine those two elements, more often than not you end up with a confused mess that is neither funny nor profound. To my delight, This Is Where I Leave You is not a confused mess. It is a compelling story, which ends up being all the more profound because it is naturally funny. The comedy is not forced but stems from naturally dysfunctional family relationships, and exceptionally awkward situations. The blend of awkward comedy and serious subject matter is rare for an American film, at least a well-made American film. Offhand I cannot think of a decent contemporary American film to which this would compare. I can think of a fantastic British film, Death at a Funeral, which I would say makes a remarkably good comparison, if you are in the market for that type of thing.
Being that I was pleasantly surprised, I ran home from the screening and looked up the writer, Jonathan Tropper, to find all his past films, of which there is none. This is his first feature film, based off his novel by the same name. His past credits include a Cinemax series called Banshee, which I am unfamiliar with, but appears to have a good reputation. Suffice it to say, I was, at that point, abundantly impressed with the screenplay, especially when I realized he had adapted his own book. Novel writers almost never manage to adapt their own works into to a useable screenplay themselves, and most definitely not with their first feature film. These are things that don’t happen, but I am definitely putting Jonathan Trooper on a list of writers to watch.
This Is Where I Leave You is primarily about Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), and his family. Judd is having a profoundly bad year. First, his wife sleeps with his boss, which he discovers when he walks in on them on her birthday, then his dad dies. When his dad dies, he is called home for the funeral, and to fulfil his father’s last request, that his family sits Shiva. Sitting Shiva, is a traditional seven day Jewish mourning tradition. For seven days, Judd will be stuck in the same house with his grieving celebrity-psychologist mother Hillary (Jane Fonda), his sister Wendy (Tina Fey), brothers Phillip (Adam Driver) and Paul (Corey Stoll), all while he is trying to sort out his undisclosed impending divorce. The whole situation begins to explode as the siblings who generally do not like each other attempt to deal with spouses, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends and boyfriends, parents and each other.
There is a plethora of good things about this movie, and more than enough to draw everyone I know to a theatre. The drawbacks to the film are minor, even the best comedy has an ill-timed or joke with no landing. This Is Where I Leave You is no exception, there are a small handful of jokes while funny are difficult to reconcile with the overall tone of the film. They are superfluous and could have easily been cut without harming the level of humor or the story. It is fortunate that they are brief and not over-the top, and nearly all in the beginning of the film, not toward the third act, which carries with it some weight. Given that, even if the film were terrible, which it is not, I would offer a redeeming star that I now believe could drag the most unredeemable of films away from the edge, Tina Fey.
Tina Fey’s role in this film is possibly the most serious role she has ever taken on. It is fortunate for the rest of this cast that she is a generous actor and does not overwhelm the screen with her presence, which I believe she could have easily done. I hope to see her take more roles like this in the future, I think she has a significant talent, however I would not complain if she chooses to stick to comedy. If she did choose to expand her resume, I could see her becoming the next Robin Williams.
This Is Where I Leave You is as hilarious as it is profound, awkward and heartbreaking it uses comedy to tell a significant story about the complexity of life love, and relationships. 4 out of 5