Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

'This is Where I Leave You' doesn't quite take the cake

 


I would recommend seeing the film “This is Where I Leave You” before spending time with your extended family. Despite their quirks, your own family will seem incredibly normal compared to the highly dysfunctional Altman clan, who make this film a “family affair” in the most unusual ways.

The dramatic comedy opens with character, Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) having a really bad day. He discovers his wife in bed with his boss, and then receives a phone call that his father has passed away. Judd arrives at the family home to satisfy his father’s dying wish, that his wife and four children spend seven days together at the family home sitting shivah in his memory. Though the children are dismayed by the inconvenience, his mother (Jane Fonda) announces, “for the next seven days you are all my children again, and you are (all) grounded.”

I had high hopes for “This is Where I Leave You,” as the book of the same name is one of my favorites, and the author, Jonathan Tropper, also penned the screenplay. I loved the book, but merely liked the movie. Unfortunately, some of Tropper’s wickedly funny humor from the book was lost in translation, or merely dropped for being too dark for the tone of the film.

One of the book’s most hilarious and off-putting moments, which helped set up the premise of the book, was absent from the film. In the beginning of both the novel and movie, Judd arrives home mid-day to bring his wife a birthday cake surprise. However, he is the one who gets the surprise when he finds that she is not celebrating alone. In the book, Judd got some vigilante justice involving the cake and some blazing birthday candles smashed “where the sun don’t shine,” making his boss suffer “in the end.” In contrast, the film portrays Judd more like a victim, which I am surmising made him more likable and relatable to the audience, but was far less satisfying from my point of view. In the movie, the cake incident moved swiftly, and denied Judd his “just desserts.”

As the story unfolded, I developed a love/hate relationship with the members of the Altman family, much as they had with one another. While Judd and sister, Wendy (Tina Fey) shared a loving and believable bond, sibling rivalry amongst the three brothers dominated the screen time. The brothers wrestle and jab at one another, and not just physically. Littlest brother, Phillip, (Adam Driver) never grew up, and at 30-something, his boyishness has lost its charms on just about everyone, except his mother. Fonda plays Hilary Altman as a warm, loving, quirky matriarch and child psychologist, with a tendency to reveal more than appropriate (in more ways than one). Mrs. Altman’s “boob job” is played for laughs, and becomes the butt of one too many jokes, getting in the way, both literally and physically, of several poignant moments. The hodgepodge of spouses, exes, and unexpected bedfellows rounds out the Altman clan, adding interest and complication, and making it difficult for the family to rest in peace throughout their week at home.

The Altmans became more likable during the film’s second half. Touching, laughable, and unexpected moments broke down the walls between the siblings, and unblocked Judd’s repressed emotions.

While the film didn’t quite do the book justice, I started to feel at home with the Altman family by the time the movie came to a close. Family dysfunction began to make way for family bonding, and everyone got along just a little bit better. At the week’s end members of the Altman family went their separate ways, and I was saddened that “this is where I left them” — wanting to know what the next chapter held for the Altman clan.

 

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