September 9, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto 2014 Review: “This Is Where I Leave You”


THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (Warners) – Opens September 19 – Worth A Ticket

Jonathan Tropper’s very successful day job is writing seriocomic novels about families and romance that are distinguished by their male protagonists–the ground he trods is similar to Nick Hornby’s, but without quite matching Hornby’s freshness of approach or wit.  (In his off-hours, Tropper is co-creator/showrunner of Cinemax’s wildly entertaining gonzo thriller Banshee.)  Rather surprisingly, considering how accessible and well-selling his books have been, it’s taken 15 years for one of them to reach the screen.  With Tropper serving as screenwriter, the experience of watching THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, which made a quick stop at the Toronto Film Festival before opening in theatres next week, is very much like reading the novel, with a fair supply of laughs and satisfactions, but not much that’s truly memorable.

This Is Where I Leave You is centered around a family that’s just lost its patriarch (two other Tropper novels, How To Talk To A Widower and One More Thing Before I Go, also feature recent or imminent death–he doesn’t stray far from his chosen territory).  The Altman paterfamilias was Jewish mostly in name, but after his death, his widow Hillary (Jane Fonda) informs their four children–Judd (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll) and Philip (Adam Driver)–that his last request was that the family observe the traditional 7 days of shiva, which requires that the close relatives of the deceased sit in close proximity and mourn.  The siblings can only stand each other to varying degrees, but they agree to go along (although before long they’re all playing hooky from the actual shiva).  Naturally, over the course of the week, all of their individual problems, and their dysfunctional relationships with each other, will get hashed out.

Judd, a typical Tropper hero, is in the worst shape:  he recently lost his wife (Abigail Spencer) and his job when he found the first in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard) at the second.  But none of the others are settled, either:  Wendy has a troubled marriage, Paul and his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn)–Judd’s former girlfriend–have fertility issues, and Philip is the family screw-up, although he’s currently involved with a wealthy older woman (Connie Britton) he clearly doesn’t deserve.  Tropper doesn’t reach too far for plotting inventiveness:  once Judd has run into his lovely and still-single high school girlfriend Penny (Rose Byrne), it doesn’t take much to figure out where his story is going, although they do hit a sizable complication along the way, and most of the other stories work similarly.

As disposable as Tropper’s novels may be, they’re still tasty fast food, and Shawn Levy, directing his first quasi-drama after a career of comedy product like Cheaper By the Dozen, Date Night and A Night At the Museum, has a sure hand with the material.  He doesn’t overplay the comedy (with the exception of one painful sequence with Ben Schwartz as the family rabbi, whose synagogue service is a self-contained skit that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie at all), and he also doesn’t make more of the drama than it merits.

Levy is, of course, aided by the spectacular cast he’s assembled.  Bateman is utterly in his wheelhouse as Judd, who could be cousin to Arrested Development‘s Michael Bluth, and he and Fey could happily play brother and sister together in everything they do for the rest of their careers.  For Fey, this is a relatively dramatic performance, and she’s quite good at the darker aspects of Wendy’s life.  Driver, playing a very familiar type, gives his performance enough off-kilter readings and physical bits that Philip seems more original on screen than he did on the page.  Stoll plays the good son who went into the family business, and there’s only so much he can do with that, but it’s a pleasure to see him in comedy after the grim drama of House of Cards and The Strain.  Fonda, whether at her own inclination or Levy’s, was very smart to underplay what was the most strident role in the book (Hillary is a therapist who wrote best-selling books through her childrens’ youth exposing every quirk and embarrassment of their childhoods, a plot point that’s been toned down for the movie).  Unfortunately, some of the connective material that allowed her character’s twist to make sense has been lost in the adaptation, but the moment of revelation still gets the movie’s biggest laugh.

This Is Where I Leave You gives audiences exactly the ride it intends.  Along with the acting, Levy provides warm-hued photography by Terry Stacey, a brisk pace courtesy of editor Dean Zimmerman, and a supportive score from Michael Giacchino.  As a movie, it’s not much more than big-screen TV–but in our current era of nonstop spectacle and self-serious awards chasers, a mid-level comedy-drama that delivers on both scores is more than a little refreshing.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."