This Is Where I Leave You brings together such an amazing batch of actors that I almost didn’t notice how desperately the movie is trying not to seem too Jewish. It’s about a family named Altman who are sitting shiva, but as one character explains, the mother isn’t Jewish and the Dad, who’s just died, was an atheist. It’s like a middle-period Neil Simon play, where the characters are named Nancy and Bill, but they behave like Borscht-belt comics. The story centers on the problems of a straight, rich, early middle-aged white guy, and it’s the kind of story where emotional freedom is symbolized by a ride in a fancy sports car.
Luckily, the white guy is played by Jason Bateman, who’s so effortlessly appealing that he even looks good in a scruffy beard – the beard is another tip-off to his wisecracking depression. Jason returns to his family’s gorgeously landscaped suburban colonial, where a number of scenes are upstaged by the wallpaper. Jason’s Mom is played by the impossibly gorgeous Jane Fonda, whose surgeon deserves his own Academy Award, because Jane never looks pinched or yanked or frozen; as my own mother, the beloved Sondra Krell-Gelman commented, “Jane Fonda was put on this earth to make Charlize Theron feel homely.” Jason’s brothers are Corey Stoll and Adam Driver, whose characters are respectively solid and boring, and sexy and irresponsible, so it’s a little like watching Corey and Adam in The Star-Spangled Girl or Boeing-Boeing at the Westport Melody Tent.
The always heavenly Tina Fey plays Jason’s grouchy married sister, and Tina’s only problem is that she’s just naturally way more interesting than that. Tina is secretly still in love with the boy next door, who’s played by Timothy Olyphant. Tina and Timothy had a long-ago romance which ended with Timothy’s non-specific head injury, which seems to have resulted in memory loss and a bad wig. Timothy’s disability keeps these lovers apart, but come on: when a guy is as dreamy as Timothy in a t-shirt, no sane person would care if he occasionally forgot his address. At one point Tina is also required to tenderly brush a strand from Timothy’s head-injury wig out of his eyes, a gesture which will always be a sure-fire mood killer.
Everyone in the movie has a dramedy-style problem, including infidelity, infertility, widowhood and age-inappropriate romance, and all of these troubles are solved by the characters curling up beside each other, talking, joking, hugging and then joking about hugging. There are also running gags involving potty training, a rabbi, marajuana and teenage masturbation, as if every member of the family has his or her own lounge act. The wonderful Rose Byrne, and her pirouetting body double, play a figure-skating possible love interest for Jason, and they’re saddled with rust-colored, rippling hair. In fact, most of the women in this movie have been assigned hair which can’t decide if it wants to be brown or blonde, so it settles for an orangey bronde. Rose also keeps using peoples’ full names, as in “Judd Altman, you’re a good man” or “Judd Altman, I like you.”
While I was watching this movie, all I kept thinking was, none of this would ever happen at, say, a Gelman-Waxner Passover seder. No one would ever climb out onto a rooftop for a wistful midnight chat, or get high and accidentally set off a sprinkler system. The women would just eat and compare handbags while the men discussed buying every Palestinian a microwave and a ride-on mower, as a show of good faith. We would never talk about our feelings or the nature of love, not if we could all watch a few minutes of something on Netflix, and then take a nap, if you ask me.