For those left behind: ‘This is Where I Leave You’

Family dramedy aims far more for laughs than human dysfunction

by T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: [l-r] Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman and Adam Driver in “This Is Where I Leave You”; photo: Warner Bros. Pictures Rating: R, Grade: C

I have a real soft spot for feature films that dig into dysfunctional families. Maybe it’s because I was an only child raised by a single parent, the kind of kid who enjoyed the fly on the wall perspective offered when I spent time in the homes of friends with multiple siblings. Those homes, for me, were like living pinball games – the parents were the flippers keeping all the balls in play amid the flickering strobe lights and the raucous bells and whistles. From my far more narrow experience, families were chaotic and frenzied, thrillingly competitive units, bursting with emotional potential.

And so, the movies that attempt to capture that sense of lightning in a bottle, even while limited by narrative-arc constraints, fascinate me. The most recent example that succeeded in approximating the mercurial mix of drama and comedy – writer-director Thomas Bezucha’s “The Family Stone” – had fraying edges, like an old worn blanket, crocheted for the first-born child and passed down to each new sibling who chewed and picked away at the threads, but somehow the blanket held its form, and now is removed from its treasured chest as a reminder of the warmth it was able to provide all those years. An obvious key to the success of such films is the chemistry contained in the ensemble cast, their ability to create the illusion of shared history, the unconditional love and repressed resentments that bind families, moreso than mere blood.

I settled into the Toronto International Film Festival press screening of “This Is Where I Leave You,” from novelist and screenwriter Jonathan Tropper (adapting his own work) and director Shawn Levy (best known for comedic projects like the “Night at the Museum” franchise and “Date Night”), hoping for a suitable companion piece to “The Family Stone,” although concerned about the broad comedic hijinks that dominated the trailers for the film.

Things kick off with Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), talk radio producer and de facto prodigal son of the Altman clan, discovering his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) happens to be sleeping with his boss (Dax Shepard), an outsized on-air personality. Judd’s life slides on a downward spiral of bad hair growth and an inability to drag himself off the couch, until he gets a call from his sister Wendy (Tina Fey), informing him of their father’s death.

Judd joins Wendy, staid older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), their much younger man-child of a brother Phillip (Adam Driver) and Mama Altman (Jane Fonda) with her augmented breasts for the funeral and the decision to hold a seemingly random shiva (a Jewish mourning ritual at odds with the Altman’s less than observant family dynamic). Seven days under the same roof, for a family that can’t stand to be around one another, each with their own relationship challenges, should provide a foundational blueprint for offbeat family drama.

“This Is Where I Leave You” operates with sitcom efficiency and glossy big screen sheen, thanks in large part to the grounding of Bateman’s straight-man work. We’ve come to take him for granted because Bateman never resorts to tricks and tics in his performances. He refuses to reduce himself to double takes and unnecessary mugging in order to elicit a laugh. He’s willing to trust that dramatic elements will illuminate the subtle humor in the moment.

If only Tropper and Levy had followed his lead. What’s missing here is a focus on honest character and human frailty, instead of an eagerness to incite the giggles. Family dramedies should not strain themselves to produce a certain number of ha-ha funny beats; they should make us smile quietly in wistful recognition of the familiar.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at and visit his blog for additional film reviews at

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at and visit his blog for additional film reviews at You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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