In 1983, a movie came out called “The Big Chill,” an emotional drama about a group of old college pals who gather for a weekend reunion following the funeral of a close friend. Its main focus was the harsh realities of real life and how time erodes even the most established friendships with a few brief laughs thrown in for good measure.
In 2010, another movie was released called “Grown Ups,” an Adam Sandler comedy following almost the exact same formula. This film relied on jokes and rude humor with some light touches of emotional subtext. Both of these movies are on the opposite ends of the spectrum for the “funeral reunion” story that all end up roughly following the same procedure. “This Is Where I Leave You” sets itself right in the middle of these two extremes that hits a lot of the right notes but too often focuses on its less interesting details.
The protagonist of the film is Jason Bateman playing Judd Altman. He has the perfect job and life until he discovers his wife has been sleeping with his boss for the past year.
In the interim of his pending divorce, he gets a call from his sister, Wendy (Tina Fey). She tells him his father died and his last wish was for his family to sit shiva, the Jewish tradition of a weeklong mourning period for the immediate family. That means for an entire week Judd is stuck in the old house with his mom, his siblings and all their equally dysfunctional families.
The big draw of this film is that the core family members are notable television actors and the chemistry between all these actors is one of the best aspects of the film. Any actors can play friends, but these stars all make believable and entertaining family members, which is no easy feat.
The on-screen bond feels just as familial when they are reminiscing about their late father as it is when they are bickering. The relationship between Judd and Wendy is especially poignant, as there is clearly a strong bond between the two that is never addressed yet immediately understood.
It is in this way that the film’s biggest strength really comes into play: it is all an incredibly honest look at family and at life. It spares the audience from overly dramatic or poetic story structures in favor of what a typical person would do in the given situation. There is a scene in the middle where Judd and Wendy are talking about his marriage problems and she claims that he is going to get back with his wife. Judd asks her how she knows and she says, “Because divorce, moving, starting over – it’s complicated. You don’t do complicated,” to which he agrees.
The film treats all its characters and plots with the same realistic, honest fervor which makes these people all the more relatable, while also throwing in some cheap but effective gags that make this film a truly enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately, everything that is not about Judd or his family feels shoehorned in with varying degrees of uninteresting. There are also several subplots involving different characters' personal issues that all quickly wrap up with a slightly out-of-left-field twist at the very end. While the film needed these to give the family subject meaning, none of it feels like something we have not seen before.
This is the kind of movie that is not overtly great but really could not have been any better. The story’s been done before but the characters all feel like real people with excellent dialogue and chemistry among the actors. Coupling this with an expertly chosen soundtrack, director Shawn Levy manages to capture a typical family without caricaturing it and does a fine job making a tired premise still feel fun and heartwarming.