Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.
Our content ratings (0-5): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star ratings (0-5): 3.5
Honor your father and your mother…
When the patriarch of the Jewish Altman family dies his four grown children find it difficult to follow Moses’ commandment. Their father had been a life-long atheist, but his widow Hillary (Jane Fonda), even though she is a WASP, feels duty bound to honor his last wish. He had apparently retained enough of his heritage to ask that the family sit Shiva, the seven-day period of formal mourning during which the family host visitors bringing their condolences. She puts it to her startled children in words shared by many a mother, “In other words, you’re all grounded for the next seven days.” Daughter Wendy pointedly reminds her that they are “sitting in the same spot where we put the Christmas tree,” but Mom fails to see the absurdity of it all.
They especially resent being tied down for such a long period, but, as with Wendy’s, she brushes aside all of their objections. The brood consists of the eldest son, Paul (Corey Stoll) who has stayed behind to run the family sporting goods store; the cautious middle son, Judd (Jason Bateman), a producer for a New York radio show and bruised over leaving his unfaithful wife when he walks into his bedroom and finds her with his boss Wade (Dax Shepard); the young ne-er do well Phillip (Adam Driver); and the only daughter, Wendy (Tina Fey), probably the most mature of the group, and certainly the bossiest, though she does have an issue with the brain damaged neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant). They had been high school sweethearts until his accident damaged his brain.
The children bring with them to their Westchester County hometown the following: Paul’s domineering wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) who desperately wants to conceive a child; Phillip shows up late for the funeral accompanied by the beautiful Tracey (Connie Britton) who is almost as old as his mom and has been his therapist; Wendy’s husband is a workaholic, and their toddler son enjoys dragging his portable potty around and showing off the results of his training. Showing up later is Judd’s wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) feeling guilty and seeking reconciliation, followed by shock-jock Wade seeking to hold onto her. Already in the village is the lovely ice-skating instructor Penny (Rose Byrne), who had never left town and still is sweet on Judd. She just might be the one to pull him through his funk at being cuckolded. I should also mention one other stay-behind, Rabbi Charles Grodner (Ben Schwartz), the high school classmate of the Altmans. He is pictured as inept as those of most Hollywood clergymen, using a folksy approach to appeal to his congregation and seeming to have little of the wisdom of his ancient heritage. The Altmans love to embarrass him by calling him by his old nickname, Boner.
Director Shawn Levy’s film, adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own novel, is part of a popular genre, the reunion of a family or friends after a long period of being separated by their separate pursuits. The film comes as a relief from an earlier film about children gathered by a father’s death, August: Osage County, perhaps one of the most downers of its season. The Altman family also is dysfunctional, but not in such hateful ways. Mom, once a popular child psychologist, has over the years upset her sons and daughter by mining them for material for her best-selling self-help book. And they are also disturbed by her recent enlargement her breasts. The latter, so unlikely a thing for a supposed therapist to do, seems to be included mainly for the series of laughs that it gets.
The film, punctuated by a few serious and moving moments, is definitely unsubtle light entertainment. The flimsy film that is saved by a great ensemble cast, all of whom are better than their material. The story is more about Jason Bateman’s Judd than anyone else. He is portrayed as a go-along guy who never deviated from what was expected of him. This is symbolized by his observation that he had thought of going beyond Westchester up to Maine, but had never done so. I don’t think it is giving too much away by revealing that eventually what he does in his car heading north sums up the new journey his life will henceforth by setting upon. (There still is a surprise that Mom springs upon the clan, one that evoked gasps and laughter from members of the screening audience!)
The review with a set of discussion questions will appear in the Oct. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.