Imagine the worst week of your life; Judd Altman is having that week. In the first five minutes of “This Is Where I Leave You,” his marriage is destroyed, his career falls apart, and his father dies. What follows does not in any way decrease his misery or constitute closure. What follows is the absurdity and indignity of real life, which is what makes this a good film.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Tropper, “This Is Where I Leave You” has its work cut out for it by the end of the third scene. The events that begin this story occur along the lines that usually end the tale. Instead, Judd is dragged into shiva, family drama and small-town life, all while experiencing something like midlife. The novel painted the portrait of a douchebag who could not see women as people or take on anything difficult. The film surgically removes the main character’s douchiness and allows the script to speak.
Jason Bateman is eminently likable as Judd, with an approachable take on the everyman who maintains his sense of humor in the face of tragedy. Suspension of disbelief is necessary to accept that he and his brother came from the same gene pool, as the youngest member of this family is played by a very disarming Adam Driver. The Altman clan is rounded out by Jane Fonda as a tuned-up matriarch with brand-new tits and the irrepressible Tina Fey, whom one cannot help but credit with the retooling of the casual misogyny in the source material. Timothy Olyphant turns in a haunting performance as a brain-damaged lover from days gone by. Rose Byrne tries a little too hard in the role of the quirky lover, but her chemistry with Bateman works despite it.
The best moments of this film exist in the shocking details; the three brothers clandestinely smoking weed in the synagogue rather than saying kaddish plays for both laughs and tears. Tina Fey takes the character of Wendy through a complete gamut of love, obligation, regret and sisterly affection, showing she actually has some acting talent when not pressured to be funny. Fonda is as forthright as ever, playing an oversexed therapist and author who makes her children sick with her frankness. Cory Stoll is merely serviceable in his role as the eldest but keeps the flame of sibling rivalry burning. He is totally outshone by Kathryn Hahn as his volatile wife, who holds scene tension like a clothespin.
The film as a whole feels as messy and as rich as the life of a real family. Wrongs are forgiven but never forgotten. Everyone knows one another too well. A certain clumsiness is present in the characterization of a Jewish family; there are painfully long shots of tables laid with bagels and lox, kishkes, hamentaschen and a seemingly endless spread of stereotypically semitic dishes.
To the screenwriter’s credit, the climactic moment in the film manages to surprise despite the piling of outrageously unfortunate events throughout. Throughout the film, nothing much changes, but the audience is left with the feeling that people can change. That’s a powerful message, and it makes sense that it takes such a litany of insanity to get us there.
The worst week of Judd’s life is also a week that will define him. “This Is Where I Leave You” is a film about self-definition, from the cradle to marriage bed, and how each relationship forms the life of an individual. Audiences will no doubt identify with the likable Judd and follow him as he is defined in midlife by the people who love him. It might be the worst week of his life, but we should all be so lucky.
“This Is Where I Leave You” is playing at Shattuck Cinemas.