This Is Where I Leave You
I once saw a bumper sticker that trumpeted, "Let's put the fun back in dysfunctional!" That sardonic suggestion could double as a summary for This Is Where I Leave You, a raw-but-tender and often bittersweet story about four differently damaged adult siblings (not to mention their oversharing mother) getting in touch with their deep disillusionment about life and even deeper relational struggles after their father's passing.
They're kind of pushed into all that. You see, Mom tells them that Dad's dying wish was for his family to spend seven days together.
The Altman siblings, we learn, are not very happy. Conscientious and careful Judd is a devoted husband and producer for a radio shock jock in New York City. He comes home from work one day to give his wife, Quinn, a birthday cake … and finds her in bed with his boss. Then his sister calls to tell him about Dad. And it's not long before Judd's complication level spikes up several more notches when he bumps into his adolescent crush Penny at the Altman family's sporting goods store.
Taciturn eldest son Paul and his demanding wife, Annie, have been trying to get pregnant for years, but to no avail … an ongoing, unending source of disappointment. It doesn't help that Judd and Annie dated before she moved on to Paul, a lingering bit of history that may not be completely played out quite yet.
Wendy is trapped in a loveless, lifeless marriage with her workaholic husband, Barry. They have two small children … the youngest of whom pours gasoline on Annie's burning desire for a baby when the family finally gathers. There's more, of course: The love of Wendy's life, Horry, lives across the street. He and Wendy were in an automobile accident when they were 20, a tragedy leaving him with brain damage that ended their storybook romance by way of memory lapses and violent outbursts.
Wild child Phillip is irresponsible, dishonest and narcissistic in equal measure. His superficial charm makes him a hit with the ladies … including his current lady, his much older former therapist, Tracy. She knows Phillip's childish immaturity should be a deal-killer, but she can't pull away from the impetuous, infectious man-child's magnetism.
And then there's the clan's matriarch, Hillary Altman, a filter-free celebrity psychologist who advocates always telling the truth—especially when it comes to sex. Never mind that her eagerness to do so in her famous book Cradle & All has deeply wounded her children. Hillary is apt to wax eloquent about her now-deceased husband's satisfying sexual anatomy … but, strangely, she doesn't actually seem to miss the rest of him much at all.
That curiosity becomes much less so when Mom drops one last revelatory bomb on her children near the end of their tumultuous (but sometimes redemptive) week of feuding and forgiving.
Doused with as much R-rated content as this film is, it may not be intuitive to think that it so strongly affirms the importance and goodness of family bonds. As the siblings, their spouses and significant others spend a painful week together, they learn things about one another they didn't know before. And they come to a place of deeper acceptance and grace.
Phillip's antics, for instance, have always made him the black sheep. But Paul and Judd decide to offer him a chance to hold down a real job in the sporting goods store they've all inherited. Phillip, for his part, tells Wendy that he's always thought of her as his primary parent, not Mom or Dad. He says that it's his sister's voice he hears in head when he needs a nudge in the right direction.
Paul and Judd literally come to blows when Paul mistakenly believes his brother was putting the moves on his wife. In that tense moment, Phillip tries to play the role of peacemaker. (He fails, but you get the point!) Meanwhile, Wendy and Judd forge a new connection as they process where and how their lives went so off course. Their counsel to each other isn't always very good (in fact, it's frequently pretty bad), but they nevertheless build a place of safety in which they can try to process their hurts. When Judd learns that Quinn is pregnant with his child, he tells her he's committed to being the best father possible—though that commitment stops short of calling off the divorce.
Woven through it all is Hillary's wacky attempts to affirm her children and communicate her deep love for them. In fact, we eventually learn that the suggestion for the siblings to spend seven days at home together wasn't their father's dying wish at all, but rather Mom's last-ditch attempt to foster a bit of reconnection and reconciliation. And she reassures Judd that his father loved him, even if the older man didn't know how to communicate his feelings.
As for their deceased dad's legacy, at first it's clear that the Altman kids think his emotionally absent demeanor did nothing but damage to them all. Slowly, though, they each remember ways that he cared for them, culminating in a flashback Judd has to his dad helping him after a bike accident.
The Altmans are Jewish, but they don't actually practice or believe very much. And passing mention is made of the fact that Dad was an atheist. Still, Mom insists they attend temple and go through a detailed Jewish mourning process, guided by Rabbi Charles Grodner. A scene in the temple involves singing. And the funeral for Mort Altman finds the rabbi reading Psalm 23. At one point Wendy quips, "We're so going to hell—do we believe in hell?"
Ribald and raw sexual banter saturates this story. We hear crude, rude and socially unacceptable references to breasts, penis size, oral sex, shaving pubic hair, masturbation, "putting out," groping, ovulation and menstrual cycles. Rabbi Grodner, it turns out, grew up with the Altman kids, and his nickname back then was "Boner" (which they all mercilessly call him now, even in temple).
As mentioned, Judd walks into his bedroom to find Quinn having sex with his boss. And he watches the explicit movements of the illicit couple for a few seconds before they realize he's there. We also see Quinn's bare backside and her breast from the side when she gets out of bed.
Wendy suggests that Judd has to have sex with Penny before he can forgive his cheating wife. He eventually does, and we see the pair kissing passionately and beginning to disrobe. Phillip and Tracy kiss, and he grabs her backside. We find out that Phillip has cheated on her with an ex-girlfriend. (Tracy wisely ends the relationship.) It's implied that Wendy and Horry have sex, too, and she tries to rationalize to her brother why her indiscretion is different than Quinn's betrayal of Judd. It's revealed that Judd also had sex with Penny back when they were teens, and that Judd had a sexual relationship with Annie before she married Paul. We see Judd's upper torso in the shower twice.
Annie and Paul talk about the details of trying to get pregnant. And a baby monitor broadcasts their very verbal intercourse to a room full of guests. Annie is so desperate to get pregnant that she also tries to seduce Judd, crawling on top of him and grabbing his crotch. (Judd's horrified and resists her advances.)
Hillary's enhanced cleavage is continually featured, with jokes frequently being made about her breasts. One scene barely avoids full exposure. Hillary talks at some length and with far too much detail about her sexual exploits with her husband (including having sex in a car on their first date). And she eventually reveals that she's now become a lesbian. We see her kiss her partner, and when her brood asks if Dad knew, Mom says yes, that he approved, and that he was happy she wouldn't be lonely after he was gone.
Several fistfights involve various combinations of siblings. One brawl breaks glass, a shard of which gets embedded in Judd's forehead. Wendy socks Judd's boss. After Mort Altman passes away, we see Hillary rip a tube out of his chest. Judd is zapped by a faulty breaker switch.
Crude or Profane Language
About 20 f-words, 30 s-words. We also hear quantities of crudities and foul put-downs such as "b--ch," "d--k," "balls" and "p---y." God's name is abused at least 20 times (five or six times paired with "d--n"). Jesus' names are misused half a dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
This family guzzles alcohol throughout. Judd and Wendy crawl out on the roof to think … and drink. The siblings go to a bar and down shots. Wendy says she's drinking "Dad's schnapps."
Judd finds several joints in his father's favorite sport coat. During a remembrance service at temple, the three brothers sneak off to a classroom and get very stoned (setting off the temple's sprinkler system). Phillip's shown with a cigarette twice. (One time is in Wendy's car, and she tells him not to light up, saying, "It's 2014!") Penny tells Judd that her "antidepressants obliterate whatever filter" she has. Hillary says she's "popping Xanax like Tic Tacs" to deal with her grief.
Other Negative Elements
For humor's sake, we repeatedly see Wendy's preschool-age son use his portable kid potty. He uses it outside, in the living room, wherever. One scene involves its solid contents accidentally being flung on someone.
This Is Where I Leave You (based on the 2010 book by Jonathan Tropper) falls into that dreaded Jekyll-and-Hyde category, a vexing mix of good, bad and ugly. The story observes that life is messy and difficult, but that our family members are uniquely positioned to help us through rough stretches … even if they're pretty messed up too. I like that message. It's affirming, redemptive and hopeful, and it gives this movie something of a feel-good vibe.
What feels very, very bad is all the sordid stuff Tropper (who also wrote the screenplay) and director Shawn Levy wade through en route, namely a lot of sexual sleaze paired with harsh profanity.
Maybe even worse than that, though, is how the movie romanticizes—and thus minimizes—its characters' poor-to-downright-awful choices. Judd and Wendy reinforce each other's infidelity rationalizations. Wendy suggests that Judd's going to have to cheat on his wife in order to get over her cheating on him. And then we're asked to completely understand why Wendy would cheat on her husband—because the one true love of her life is still "out there."
Where does that leave us? At the junction of familial reconciliation and the idea that happiness can best be found by breaking our deepest commitments.
Nope. There's no fun at all in this dysfunction.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jane Fonda as Hillary Altman; Jason Bateman as Judd Altman; Abigail Spencer as Quinn Altman; Rose Byrne as Penny Moore; Tina Fey as Wendy Altman; Aaron Lazar as Barry Weissman; Cade Lappin as Cole; Adam Driver as Phillip Altman; Connie Britton as Tracy Sullivan; Corey Stoll as Paul Altman; Kathryn Hahn as Annie Altman; Timothy Olyphant as Horry Callen; Debra Monk as Linda Callen; Dax Shepard as Wade Beaufort; Ben Schwartz as Rabbi Charles Grodner
Shawn Levy ( Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, The Internship, Real Steel, Date Night, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Night at the Museum, The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen, Just Married, Big Fat Liar)
September 19, 2014
December 16, 2014