Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for language, sexual content and some drug use.
Running time: 103 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
Mawkish, self-satisfied and false, “This Is Where I Leave You” strenuously attempts to wring poignancy from its familial clashes and catharsis. More often, it’s cringe-inducing.
It’s also massively frustrating as it wastes its hugely talented cast. But there’s only so much veteran performers like Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda can do when they’re given characters that don’t even feel remotely like real people.
This is the latest effort from Shawn Levy, best known as the director of the family-friendly, effects-laden “Night at the Museum” franchise, to prove that he can make a film that’s smaller and more substantial. He similarly tried to mix comedy and drama, without great results, in “Date Night” and “The Internship.” This time, he’s working from a script by Jonathan Tropper, based on Tropper’s best-selling novel of the same name. Levy veers wildly between wacky slapstick and sticky sentimentality, with healthy sprinklings of toddler-poop and elderly-boob gags. To say these elements target the lowest common denominator is an insult to the lowest common denominator.
And yet, a few, scattered moments work their magic and offer relatable nuggets of truth. But they are far too few and far too scattered.
“This Is Where I Leave You” falls into the tried-and-true category of dramedies in which tragedy reunites the estranged members of a large family; here, it’s the death of the Altman patriarch. Fonda, as his longtime wife, Hilary, gathers her grown children around her in the family’s stately, traditional home in a leafy, New York suburb. She insists that they sit Shiva for a week, explaining that it was their father’s dying wish, although he was admittedly an atheistic Jew. Naturally, by the end of that period, they will all work through their grudges and hostilities and achieve some sort of peace.
Bateman’s character, Judd, has just walked in on his wife (Abigail Spencer) vigorously screwing his boss, an obnoxious radio shock jock played broadly by Dax Shepard. His marriage, home and career have fallen apart simultaneously, so he’s understandably in a bit of a haze as he makes the trek home. Despite these details (and Judd is the most detailed character in the entire film), this is a quintessential Bateman character, the kind he perfected as Michael Bluth on “Arrested Development.” He’s the bemused straight man, the voice of reason in a room full of eccentrics and wild cards, and he’s quick with the dry one-liner regardless of the situation.
Eldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll, who was so great as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”), stayed in their hometown and runs the family’s sporting-goods store. He’s supposedly an asshole but we never really see that. He and his wife (Kathryn Hahn) — who happens to be Judd’s ex-girlfriend — are trying desperately to conceive a child, which leads to some misunderstandings as well as an unfunny baby-monitor mishap.
The lone sister in the family, Fey’s Wendy, is drawn even more flimsily. She’s stuck in a loveless marriage with two kids, so she shows up at all the right times to sit on the roof with Judd and give him cliched romantic advice. (Fey, who also co-starred in Levy’s “Date Night,” gets to stretch beyond her formidable comedic talents and cry in a few scenes, which makes you long to see her do so with stronger material.) But she also pines for the boyfriend of her youth (a woefully underused Timothy Olyphant), who still lives across the street after suffering a brain injury long ago. This is a subplot that’s barely developed.
Finally, there’s the baby of the family, Adam Driver’s Phillip, who shows up at his father’s funeral late, in a convertible Porsche, with the stereo blasting. Phillip is meant to be a perennial screw-up — which is a type in itself as the youngest child — but Driver has such an intriguing screen presence and he makes such inspired choices with his dialogue that he’s always watchable. Phillip also brings home his much older girlfriend (Connie Britton), who happens to be a therapist just like his mother. (Hilary made her name writing a self-help book based on her children’s idiosyncrasies, the source of one of many festering resentments here.) Britton serves as a convenient Oedipal concept, but still manages to find a couple of lovely moments of honesty.
More often, the situations in which all these characters find themselves are pretty hackneyed. The brothers sneak away at the synagogue service honoring their father to share a couple of joints in a Hebrew school classroom. (“The Skeleton Twins” pulled off this often-seen bonding-over-drugs moment in a far more original way.) Hilary, who has splurged on new boobs and shows them off early and often, routinely makes inappropriate sexual remarks which mortify her children. Judd reunites with a local skating instructor who always had a crush on him and just happens to have stayed in town all these years, as if she were waiting for him to return (Rose Byrne plays this manic pixie dream girl on ice).
And Wendy’s toddler’s entire raison de etre is to show up from time to time with a portable potty, sit down and poop. Sadly, it’s an apt metaphor for the film itself.