“The Good Lie,” a new drama starring Reese Witherspoon in full-on Sandra “The Blind Side” Bullock mode, shines a light on an important story but does so in a familiar way.
The story begins during Sudan’s civil war, a brutal conflict that forced thousands of people—most of them little more than children—to walk thousands of miles to flee the violence. Almost all ended up in refugee camps, some for years. “The Good Lie” is aboutleft four “lost” boys and girls who were given a chance at a life in America. Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Mamere’s sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) are the recipients of humanitarian aid and relocated to the US, but due to a bureaucratic rule Abital is separated from the men.
In charge of finding work for the new comers is Carrie (Witherspoon), a case worker who, at first, is looking to get their file off her desk but soon becomes involved in their lives and their need to be reunited as a family.
Academy Award-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar” director Philippe Falardeau is straightforward in his telling of this story, mixing the human interest story with large dollops of humor and humanity, but echoes of other movies, like “The Blind Side” and “Dangerous Minds” reverberate throughout.
Falardeau focuses on the story of the refugees but the inclusion of Carrie, Witherspoon’s well-meaning case worker, shifts attention away from the crux of the story, as if the Sudanese somehow has more gravitas if told through a North American lens.
It is, however, a well-intentioned, feel good movie, nicely performed by Witherspoon and the Sudanese cast—Duany and Oceng are stand-outs—that is more successful at raising a smiles than awareness.
In the novel “This is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper the family’s last name was Foxman. For some reason it was changed to Altman for the film, which, perhaps, was done to subtly infer what kind of film it wants to be. It’s a multi-character comedy with shades of drama and pathos, which, by definition makes it, in film critic shorthand, Altmanesque.
The film may try and speak Altmanese but something gets lost in translation. Instead it does something much more basic but equally satisfying. Once it gets past trying to emulate Robert Altman, it presents a funny and sad glimpse at the inner works of a very dysfunctional but loving family.
Jason Bateman leads the large ensemble cast as Judd Altman, a successful radio producer who comes home one afternoon to find his wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his boss. His perfectly constructed world falls a part, sending him onto a tailspin that is only compounded by the death of his father.
Returning to upstate New York for the funeral he is forced to sit Shiva with his family, his over-sharing mom, a bestselling psychologist with fake breasts and a loose tongue (Jane Fonda) and three siblings, married mom Wendy (Tina Fey), practical Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver), a free spirit who brings his much older girlfriend (Connie Britton).
All under one roof for the first time in many years they must confront the ghosts of their pasts—including Wendy’s ex-boyfriend Horry (Timothy Olyphant) and Judd’s high school sweetheart Penny (Rose Byrne)—and deal with some very real truths in the present.
A mix of sentiment and wisecracks, “This Is Where I Leave You” is an all-star feast of dysfunction. The brothers don’t get along, mom dresses inappropriately and everyone seems to have slept with everyone else. No one is particularly happy but where would the drama be if they were?
The themes—it’s a study of love, marriage, divorce—and setup feel like movies we’ve seen before—family gathers for holiday, funeral, birthday—and the situations—family grudges, old girlfriends show up, delinquent sibling throws a wrench into everybody’s plans—are familiar. The thing that sets “This is Where I Leave You” apart is the casting.
Bateman is front and center and brings a nice balance of comedy and pathos to the role of Judd. He has a way with a line, but here reveals a deft hand with dramatic material, often in the same scene. It’s a lovely, quiet performance.
Fey, as the tipsy, protective older sister, also reveals a deeper well than we’ve seen before. Less versatile are Stoll and Driver who hand in enjoyable but familiar feeling work. Other supporting cast click. Like Bateman, Byrne gear shifts between sweet and funny and sweet and serious with ease while Fonda is hilarious as the widow who wonders whether she should tip the coroner.
The point is, it all gels. The cast comes together as a unit and even though the movie veers toward easy sentimentality when an edgier approach might have been more realistic, the players are the ties that bind the family and this movie together.