Too clever by half and too broad to be genuinely funny, the contrived family dramedy This Is Where I Leave You favors situational contrivances over honest characters. It’s the sign of a distinctly modern movie such as this that after winding us up with hijinks for the duration of its running time, it also asks us to wring tears it hasn’t earned because the screenplay hasn’t bothered to do any heavy lifting.
Jason Bateman is jilted Manhattan radio producer Judd Altman, whose cheating wife has taken up with his macho shock jock boss (Dax Shepard). When it rains, it pours, and receiving news of his father’s death he’s summoned home by his best-selling author and child psychiatrist mom (Jane Fonda, welcomely game).
Home is a sprawling New England colonial straight out of a Pottery Barn seasonal, and matriarch mom is joined by a sibling clan including Wendy (Tina Fey), stuck in a loveless marriage; Paul (Corey Stoll), with fertility issues and a patient wife (Kathryn Hahn); and Phillip (Adam Driver), a perpetual man-child dating his older shrink (Connie Britton). Cleavage-heavy mom demands the children sit Shiva, setting the stage for a week of old wounds and new problems.
On the periphery are a delightful Rose Byrne as the hometown girl with a thing for Judd, and a childhood pal now turned hip rabbi, Charles (Ben Schwartz), with an unfortunate nickname that the film believes is a real knee-slapper (it isn’t).
Directed by Shawn Levy with a screenplay by Jonathan Tropper, based on his popular novel, I have no doubt the novel is a notch above this adaptation given its popularity and acclaim, but despite the obvious talents of this cast and given that Tropper translated his own material for the screen, something doesn’t work here, starting with the low-grade boob jokes and slapstick humor involving brotherly brawls in the dining room. Lots of antics here, and very little insights in a two-dimensional story that wastes its capable cast.
Still, there are compensations in Byrne’s lovely, unpredictable performance, a respite from the family shenanigans, and Fonda’s regal presence, which elevates the movie and gets a cheap laugh in the final scenes. There’s also a nice turn from character actress Hahn, who co-starred with Bateman earlier this year in his directorial debut, Bad Words, and was even able to get laughs out of last year’s We’re the Millers. And a scene near the end between Bateman and Driver is almost genuinely touching.
Driver, the lanky and off-kilter star of Inside Llewyn Davis and What If, is a curiosity, an oafishly endearing—and sometimes obnoxious—presence working to make comedy out of even the most rudimentary exchange.
Fey is wasted, given little screen time but effectively navigating from comedy to pathos, a dramatic stretch that would have worked better if the character was uncomfortably lodged between the two.
Much fun is had—too much—with the lampooning of Jewish rituals and at the expense of the hip young rabbi.
This Is Where I Leave You is a homecoming story that gets the structure and cast right, but misses the mark in both comedy and drama.