It’s Judd Altman’s (Jason Bateman) wife’s birthday and he leaves work a little early to bring her home a stunning cake, decorated with red roses and candles. He opens the door to their modernly furnished apartment, calls out her name, walks into their bedroom and finds her in bed with his tool of a boss Wade (Dax Shepard). He calmly takes a seat and about a half-a-minute later, his wife and boss reposition themselves and finally take notice of him. This is the first “this is where I leave you” moment. Unfortunately, Judd can’t seem to catch a break after that. Shortly after he discovers his wife was having a year-long affair, he gets a phone call from his sister saying his father has died.
This misfortune is an occasion for the Altman family to reunite. Judd and his siblings Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver), are asked by their mother to sit shiva– a Jewish tradition of mourning the dead for seven days without work, or travel and with fleets of daily visitors coming to grieve with you, or engage in small talk. Judd is asked where his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer) is, to which he responds that she has a bulging disc. His older brother Paul and his wife are constantly questioned when they will have kids. The tension in this couple’s life is an ongoing attempt to get pregnant. Wendy has a husband who is more married to his work than to her. For “the eternal baby,” Phillip, his main issue is being a man-child, still reckless and with little sites on his future. They all have their problems, like any normal, dysfunctional family, but they have come together, along with their mother Hillary (Jane Fonda), to mourn the loss of their father.
There is no correct way to grieve, reminds their mother, a therapist and writer who used the family’s dysfunction for the premise of her book, “Cradle and All.” Copies of the book fill an entire bookshelf in their living room. When the family’s personal problems aren’t creeping out of the woodworks and they are all grieving together, they share stories about their dad. Jane Fonda’s character shares stories about her and her husband’s first date, how endowed he was and his fondness for her breasts. Amongst sexual memories that prove uncomfortable for her children, she also remembers the character of the man she loved and reminds Judd “Your father loved you. Not what you did.”
This family drama-comedy imparts a lot of wisdom, weaved in at appropriate times and fit with key themes in life: love, family, career. Also being the baby of a family of four, I relate to Benny’s struggle to be seen as an adult, when he is fixed as “the eternal baby,” in his family’s eyes. “Well I’m not as young as you’d like to think, and neither are you” he reminds his older brother. While drinking a schnapps on the roof, Wendy advises Judd “We want the ones we can’t have and we crap all over the ones we can. Rinse and repeat.” She later says that “love causes cancer.”
The cynicism of this film is what really did it for me. It’s realistic and it’s funny. The family dynamics are also relatable. They all love each other but they don’t all like each other. When the siblings escape shiva one night and go to the bar, Phillip asks “I don’t know why we don’t do this more often.” His oldest broth Paul replies, “Because we don’t like each other that much.”
For those of you with families, siblings who drive you nuts into adulthood, or monumental loves that don’t seem to pan out… for the cynically inclined and overt optimists, this movie has something in it for you. It’s a collage of where this family came from, where they thought they were going and where they have ended up as individuals. Now this is where I leave you.