Dramedies are a tough watch, and I find that I really have to be in the right mood to watch them. Honestly, I prefer a straight comedy to a dramedy. I do not think you need to drag all that drama into your comedy. However, a truly great comedy will have multiple layers, and drama to make you feel is always a good layer. This can be accomplished in multiple ways, but ideally with a good director and a great cast. The best example of the family-dynamic dramedy I can think of? That would be the original Parenthood from 1989 that was directed by Ron Howard and starred Steve Martin. It was the basis for the now-popular TV show Parenthood.
This Is Where I Leave You is another family-dynamic dramedy that was adapted for the screen by Jonathan Tropper, from the book that he wrote. It helps to have the author do the screenplay – that way you know the material is true to the origin. The director is Shawn Levy, who actually has more experience with pure comedies, having done all three of the Night at the Museum movies (that's right, the third one will be out this Christmas), and the Internship (which was poorly received), Date Night (which combined comedy with action), Real Steel (which combined family-dynamic drama with robot fighting), the Steve Martin Pink Panther remake (no.), and the Steve Martin Cheaper By The Dozen movie (which is awesome if you love both Bonnie Hunt and Tom Welling like I do).
So we know we have a good director – what’s the story? It’s fairly simple. The patriarch of the Altman family has passed away, causing all the siblings and their families to come back to their home town to sit Shiva – a Jewish mourning tradition (their father’s last wish – as told to them by their mother).
Essentially, the immediate family of the deceased gathers in their home and sits for 7 days to receive visitors. The siblings have all spread out, and don’t really get along that well, so this proves to be difficult. To make matters worse, Judd, the son of the family that functions as the audience perspective, has just found out that his wife has been cheating on him with his boss (who is a complete tool) for the last year. He’s at an emotionally difficult point already, so going home to deal with his therapist mother, struggling sister, bossy older brother, screw-up younger brother (and his new girlfriend who is almost the age of their mother), and the local friends and family he hasn’t seen in a long time, is cause for hilarity and sadness.
The movie does find a decent balance between the humor and the drama, but really – the reason to see this movie is the cast.
- Jason Bateman plays Judd, and is always fantastic – but particularly good in this. Yes, since he is our focus, it will remind you of the Bluths from Arrested Development – but it’s not nearly as funny as that, and Judd is not nearly as self-confident as Michael. I prefer Bateman in a movie where he can be a little funnier, I’m not sure I liked seeing him so sad – but he does a really great job at it.
- Jane Fonda is a whirlwind of crazy as the mother, Hillary. She does a great job of trying to get all the kids together and in line, and then also moving forward with her own life. Fonda has been at this a long time, and really just seems to be getting better. Also – the twist at the end? I saw that coming miles away. You will too if you are paying attention.
- Tina Fey plays sister Wendy – who is struggling with a successful but disinterested husband and two kids who are just barely under control. Fey doesn’t really have the range for this character yet (she’s also better at pure comedy), but she does a good job. She’s fantastic when she gets to go crazy, and is less fantastic in the moments that require her to be a little more subtle or sad. Aaron Lazar plays Barry – her basically too-busy husband, who had one really interesting line, about how he knew he was an asshole – but then that goes nowhere. With all the other stuff in the movie that seems unnecessary – I was interested in where that would go, then it’s never mentioned again.
- Adam Driver plays youngest brother, Phillip, who is a well-documented screw-up. Since I don’t watch Girls, I have been largely ignorant of Driver’s skill until seeing this movie. He’s good, and has the potential for great darkness – so I am super excited to see what he brings to Episode 7. He does get to play various levels of screw-up, but always stays in the screw-up range.
- Connie Britton is spectacular as Phillip’s new girlfriend, Tracy. She’s a therapist, in fact she used to be his therapist, so she is well aware that this is a bad idea, and that the relationship can’t go anywhere. However, she also seems to be unable to help herself. She’s very good in this, and it’s a subtle role for those who are used to Nashville.
- Corey Stoll (welcome to the year of the Stoll!) continues his epic year as he plays oldest brother Paul. He has a little bit of bitterness, since he was the brother who stayed and took over the family sporting goods business from his father. He and his wife have been trying to have a baby for two years, and Paul is starting to feel the pressure from all sides and seems to be constantly just on the edge of a breakdown – which is a credit to Stoll’s performance. Starting out the year with Non-Stop, bits on House of Cards, A role in the Normal Heart – and being excellent on The Strain (start catching up on that if you haven’t been watching it), then being named as the villain for the upcoming Marvel movie, Ant-Man – he’s really on the rise. Get on the bandwagon now, while you can!
- Kathryn Hahn, a fantastic comedian who you have seen in countless movies, plays Paul’s stressed out wife Alice. This was a new level from Hahn of pure drama with little to no option for comedy. She does a great job of conveying the desperation of a woman who just wants to have a baby – and feels like a failure for not being able to do it.
- Rose Byrne plays Penny, a townswoman who Judd knew years ago. She sweeps in and flirts with him just as he’s busy wallowing in self-loathing. She’s fun, and helps to bring a bit of lightness to the movie. Also – good job on the American accent.
- Debra Monk plays Linda, the neighbor across the street of Hillary’s house. She and Hillary have been friends for years, so she is always in and around the house especially during the Shiva so that she can help. She does have a great exchange with Judd.
- Timothy Olyphant plays Horry (Horry?), Linda’s son. Apparently he and Wendy were very much in love when they were younger, but then there was a car accident, and he suffered some traumatic brain injury, and now cannot live on his own, and Wendy moved away. He’s amazing, but I have been a fan of his for a really long time.
- Dax Shepard plays Wade, Judd’s boss and the dude who is banging Judd’s wife. It’s the same type of character you have seen him play before, and he is really getting good. There’s actually a lot of subtlety to his performance, and I look forward to seeing what else he can do. Also – if you haven’t seen Hit and Run – rent that now.
- Abigail Spencer plays Judd’s cheating wife Quinn – who I wanted to slap repeatedly. Especially after she trails Judd to his mom’s house, then drops a bit of a bombshell on him.
- Comedian Ben Schwartz plays Rabbi Charles Grodner, and he seems to think he’s in a straight comedy, playing one running gag over and over. He’s hilarious, and he brings a good break-up to this movie.
On the whole, I liked it, but I sure didn't love it. It has some funny parts, and some emotional parts. In reality – I felt like there were a ton of characters, and way too many of them had seriously complicated storylines and issues. The whole movie feels busy and overwhelming, with not nearly enough funny. Individual performances were good, but the united piece feels a bit slapdash (that’s right, slapdash). Or, you know, like someone tried to take a really long book and make it into a 103 minute movie.
6 out of 10 – Gained points for Olyphant (go watch Gone in 60 Seconds again, and watch him steal bits of that movie), lost points for the pot-smoking scene…does every one of these movies need a pot-smoking scene? Give me a break. Gained points for Rose Byrne, but lost points for her skating double. Gained points for Adam Driver’s biceps.
Bonus Video 1: The Family Stone – another surprisingly good family-dynamic dramedy.
Bonus Video 2: Date Night – a little more comedy from Shawn Levy.
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews