Review by Amber
Judd Altman is having a bad week. He first discovers that his wife has been cheating on him—with his boss—for the past year. Soon after, his sister calls to tell him that his father has passed away. Now he must return to his childhood home in order to attend the funeral service and mourn with his family. Based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper, who adapted his work for the screen, This is Where I Leave You is a story of love, loss, and a highly dysfunctional family.
Perhaps one of the best things about this film is the cast: Jason Bateman is Judd, Jane Fonda plays the matriarch of the Altman clan, Tina Fey is the eldest (and only) sister, Rose Byrne is the blast-from-the-past love interest, and Adam Driver is the youngest brother with an incurable case of Peter Pan syndrome. The story is so full of family drama that it feels over-the-top and a little contrived. When the mother (Fonda) tells her four grown children that their (atheist) father’s last wish was that they all observe the Jewish tradition of Shiva—a seven-day mourning period during which the family does not work or travel, and stays together under one roof—the Altman siblings are reluctant to comply. But despite their years of estrangement and dysfunction, they all stay—with all their emotional baggage in tow. Judd (Batemen) is dealing with his wife’s infidelity and his impending divorce; Wendy (Fey) is married to a career-obsessed, emotionally detached jerk; eldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) are coping with infertility; and Phillip (Driver) is dating his former psychiatrist (Connie Britton). On top of it all, their mother has some enormous secrets of her own that she sits on until the end of the film. Rifts are created and mended, love affairs spring up and are quelled, and of course fights break out (both verbal and fisticuffs). Again, that all of that happens at one time in one family seems a bit contrived.
As if the family circle didn’t contain enough drama within itself, it picks up more from its surroundings like a snowball racing down a hill. While visiting their hometown, naturally the Altmans encounter many old acquaintances, friends, and first loves. Wendy is still in love with the boy next-door (well, technically, across the street), played by Timothy Olyphant, who was partially incapacitated due to a severe head injury decades ago. And Judd, through his various escapes from the house of Shiva, keeps running into his old flame Penny (Byrne). Penny is the person whom Judd feels he can confide in—particularly since he attempts to hide his divorce from most of his family—and Penny is the one who ultimately helps Judd realize what he wants out of life.
Judd experiences three major losses all at once: his wife (who was cheating on him), his job (she was cheating with his boss), and his father. All of this leads to a bit of a mid-life crisis. Judd realizes that he has been “playing it safe” his whole life—he has been planning and mapping out his life since he was a kid. Despite all of that, he has lost (seemingly) everything. He confesses to Penny: “I’ve spent my entire life playing it safe just to avoid being exactly where I am right now.”
In the Bible God tells us—more than once—that we cannot know what will happen tomorrow, and that we cannot meticulously plan our lives and then make our lives follow the plan. James 4: 13-15 says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’’ And Proverbs 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”
No matter how much we plan, no matter how much we map out our lives, no matter how much we try to protect ourselves from the fallen world we live in, we cannot know what will happen tomorrow—let alone a year, five years, or thirty years down the road. We can take comfort in this: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) And even if we reach a place in life when we feel like we have indeed lost everything, this world is not our last stop.
Jason Bateman’s performance, and the character arc for Judd Altman, really carried the film for me. The most real parts of the film were those in which Judd attempts to deal with the passing of his father, and tries to better understand the relationship they had when he was living. There is also plenty of humor interlaced with the drama—some of it is pretty great, and some a little ridiculous and/or crude. The movie definitely earns its R rating with language, sexuality (bordering on the gratuitous at times), and drug use. There are some funny bits and real moments interspersed with the absurd “humor” and forced drama. I still enjoyed watching it and found it entertaining and moving, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.