Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) has the ideal life. He’s happily married to his college sweetheart Quinn (Abigail Spencer). He has a great job working as a radio show producer. He believes his life can’t get any better. And it won’t. In fact, it’s about to get a lot worse.
In the beginning of This Is Where I Leave You (based on the Jonathan Tropper novel of the same name) we see Judd working for a hugely popular radio show called “Man Up” hosted by a “take no prisoners” shock jock named Wade (Dax Shepard). It’s not just any ordinary day for Judd. It’s also his beloved Quinn’s birthday, and before he heads home to the missus, he purchases her a delicious birthday cake. Judd can’t wait to surprise Quinn to some fabulous baked goods. However, he’s about to get a huge surprise himself.
As Judd enters the marital bedroom he notices two people tussling under the covers. Quinn and Wade (yes, Judd’s boss) are doing the horizontal sweaty. And it turns out Quinn and Wade have been having an affair for nearly a year. Not surprisingly, Judd is devastated.
And just when he thinks his life can’t get any worse, Judd’s sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls him to let him know their father, Mort, long suffering from cancer, has died. His last dying wish? Mort Altman wanted his family to sit Shiva, the traditional 7-day Jewish period of mourning. This is odd because Mort, an avowed Atheist, was Jewish in name only. And his wife and the Altman kids’ mom, Hilary (Jane Fonda), isn’t Jewish. The Altmans were never particularly observant, and there is even a mention of putting up a Christmas tree later in the film. (I, as a recovering Catholic turned Unitarian, probably have more experience making latkes than this motley crew.)
So the Altmans all awkwardly shit Shiva, awaiting in low chairs, as various friends, relatives, neighbors, and assorted acquaintances pay their respects. Judd explains his wife’s absence by claiming she had a bad injury at the gym. Wendy wrangles her two kids, a baby and a toddler in the midst of potty training. How do we know the toddler is in the midst of potty training? Well, because the adorable moppet drags his potty chair everywhere. And Wendy’s wheeling dealing hubby (who I named “suitpuke on the cell phone”) is too busy chasing the all mighty dollar to be much help and soon splits the scene.
Joining Judd and Wendy are older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) who stayed in town to help run the family business, and bad boy baby brother, Phillip (Adam) Driver), who drives up in a flashy sports car. Paul and his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) are desperate to have a child, so sex is on a very strict schedule and Alice is going a bit crazy from the fertility drugs. She’s also Judd’s old high school flame, which just adds to the awkwardness. And Phillip doesn’t come alone. With him is his much older therapist turned girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton—and her gorgeous spun from sunlight hair).
As for the Merry Widow? Well, she’s mourning her late husband while also showing off her newly enhanced cleavage (or as Judd later calls them “bionic breasts”), and waxing nostalgically for Mort’s dong. The Altman kids are appropriately embarrassed, but quite used to it. Hilary was a notable child therapist and author who often revealed her children’s most mortifying moments in her books.
Seven days of mourning bring up years of family dysfunction, childhood roles are resumed, under the surface resentments start bubbling, past regrets are revisited, and misty-eyed memories are shared.
Separated from Quinn, Judd reconnects with teenage crush Penny (Rose Byrne), but some very interesting news from Quinn may throw a wrench in Judd and Penny’s budding romance. Feeling neglected and unappreciated by her husband, Wendy reconnects with Horry (Timothy Olyphant) the neighborhood boy who was her true love. Sadly, Horry is now brain damaged due to a bad car accident he and Wendy were in years ago. Horry lives with his mom Linda (Debra Monk), and works in the Altman sporting goods store. Phillip uses Tracy to deal with his messed-up mommy issues and Tracy is sadly wise to this, but damn, Phillip is so damn charming at times. And matriarch Hilary is also dealing with some surprising romantic secrets that may shock her kids.
Mourning Mort also brings up sweet memories for the Altmans. Judd recalls how Mort would comfort him by touching Judd’s forehead with his own. Linda tells the kids how Mort paid her mortgage after her own husband died. Mort wasn’t perfect but he truly cared about his family and others. And maybe in all their grief, the Altman can grow to appreciate their father and each other.
And there are also funny moments. Judd gets back at Wade in an epic way with the help of some college boys. Wendy shows she’s in good fighting shape with a balled up fist. The family rabbi (Ben Schwartz—yep, Jean-Ralphio from “Parks and Rec”), and childhood friend of the Altman boys, helps celebrate the late Mr. Altman with some Borscht-belt shtick, while fending off his nickname of Boner. And while at temple Judd, Phillip and Paul steal away to toke up only to set off the sprinklers.
Directed by Shawn Levy and adapted by Jonathan Tropper himself, I was at bit hesitant to see the film version of This Is Where I Leave You because I adored the novel so much. But for the most part the film delivered. I noticed a few changes from the novel. For instance, in the novel the Altman’s go by the last name Foxman, and Quinn’s original name is Jen (no, I’m not bitter about the change). The film doesn’t delve too much into the Altman’s various pasts but that may have been a good choice because I’m afraid it may have been a bit too much for less-than-two-hour movie.
The best part of This Is Where I Leave You was its top-notch cast. I expected a lot and the cast totally delivered. Jason Bateman has a wonderfully real “everyman” quality. Relative newcomer, Adam Driver, is a fabulous new find. Jane Fonda (and her bionic breasts) was hilarious. And Tina Fey, one of my favorite comedic girl crushes, shows she also has the chops to handle more dramatic material.
The Altmans of This Is Where I Leave You, made me laugh, cringe, and tear-up. This shiksa wouldn’t mind observing shiva with the Altmans for a short spell. I’ll even bring the latkes.