We've all heard the old trope about how happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that no one wants to write books or movies about happy families. Unhappy ones are way more interesting.
The Altman family is quite interesting, even though on the surface their tragedies are all pretty mundane. Siblings Judd (Jason Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Phillip (Adam Driver), and Wendy (Tina Fey) are called home for their father's funeral. Judd's life is a mess, because he caught his wife sleeping with his boss (Dax Shepherd). Paul has a chip on his shoulder as the elder brother who stayed in town to run the family business but can't get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. Phillip, the youngest, is an immature mess who has gotten engaged to his shrink (Connie Britton). Wendy, in a loveless marriage, carries a torch for her old boyfriend, whose life was stunted by a head injury.
Sounds like a downer, right? Well don't worry. Based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper, who also wrote the screenplay, “This is Where I Leave You” is absolutely hilarious. The Altman matriarch (Jane Fonda) convinces the sibs that their non-religious father wanted them all to sit Shiva, a Jewish tradition that involves sitting in the house together for seven days. It's a white lie that gives them all a chance to re-connect, get in fist-fights, and work through a few of their issues.
If “This is Where I Leave You” is an example of what happens when you allow an author to adapt his own book for the screen, then Hollywood should do it more often. It's amazing how cleanly Tropper captures the spirit of his book while compacting the story for the screen. Of course, with a cast like this, it's hard to go wrong. Jason Bateman disappointed me with "Bad Words", but here he is back to his charming self. He has excellent chemistry with Rose Byrne, who plays an old love-interest. Tina Fey is beautiful and pitch-perfect, and Jane Fonda is hilarious as the fake-boob-sporting mother. Dax Shepherd's role is small, but after watching him play such a nice guy in "Hit and Run", I'm impressed by how well he can play a jerk. Then there is Adam Driver, who perhaps plays the incorrigible Phillip a little too wise at times, but is absolutely magnetic. You cannot look away from him.
It isn't often that I come away satisfied from a movie based on a book I like. It's hard to catch the lightning of a great book in the bottle of a film, but “This is Where I Leave You” does it in spades. If they gave an Oscar for Date-Movie of the Year, “This is Where I Leave You” would be a top contender.
4 stars out of 5