Because Shawn Levy’s career has revolved mostly around producing and directing family friendly movies (“Cheaper by the Dozen”, the “Night at the Museum” films and last year’s “The Internship”), I was particularly interested in seeing what he’d do with something that on paper looks a lot like “August: Osage County” with more penis jokes. It’s disappointing that “This is Where I Leave You”, his first shot at adult comedy, is about as middling as some of this year’s other ambiguously titled family dysfunction films like Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here”, laying out a familiar scenario in which to force-feed us repetitive gags for comedy and clichés for drama. There are plenty of isolated laughs, to be sure, but Levy’s characters are diluted by a script that attempts to satisfy the various plights of a massive ensemble, and writer Jonathan Tropper’s adaptation of his own novel feels consistently half-cocked, or perhaps just too big for its britches. If it weren’t for such a fantastic cast, namely Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Corey Stoll, this film would be easily forgettable.
Instead, the presence of such talent just makes the experience frustrating. The film centers on the Altman family, who convene at the home of artificially busty matriarch and best-selling author Hillary (Fonda) after the death of their father, whose final wish was for the kids to observe the Jewish tradition of Shiva for which they must abandon work and all other distractions to mourn for seven days.
Judd (Bateman), a middle sibling, is still reeling from the vision of his wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepherd), but trying to keep it secret from the family, all the while rediscovering emotions that he has for high school friend Penny (Rose Byrne, in a bubblier than usual role). His sister Wendy (Fey) is a stressed-out mother of two who’s become completely disconnected from workaholic husband (Aaron Lazar), and still pining for her one true love Horry (Timothy Olyphant) who, because of a brain trauma, still lives across the street with his mother (Debra Monk).
Bookending Judd and Wendy are young Phillip (Adam Driver), an insufferably juvenile party boy who shows up in a Porsche with his rich older girlfriend/therapist (Connie Britton) in tow, and Phillip’s polar opposite, responsible oldest brother Paul (Stoll), who has the family sporting goods business under control but can’t seem to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant.
The stage is set for all sorts of dysfunctional fun, but “This Is Where I Leave You” never really develops an identity. Dilemmas are strictly cookie-cutter for the genre. Dialogue is ho-hum, save some decent one- liners. Characters are mostly stock. Lots of R-rated yelling. It’s never clear how things got so bad for the siblings between childhood and adulthood, but a rudimentary analysis might point to mom: Hillary’s vanity and overboard sexuality recalls more than slightly the mother from the show “Two and a Half Men”, only here it’s expected to be taken somewhat seriously. Her book, ostensibly an autobiography, has become a national best-seller to the chagrin of her children, who are its thinly veiled subjects. Throughout the film, it’s tough to pinpoint whether Fonda’s character is the nurturing, free-spirited person that we get glimpses of when she’s having tender one-on-one moments with Bateman’s Judd (he was the apple of his father’s eye, she tells him) or the narcissist who uses her late husband’s wake as a book signing venue (my wife, who liked the movie at least a little more than I did, keenly observed that people are not so easily defined in real life. Agreed, but when Fonda’s breast augmentation provides about 25% of the film’s jokes, it’s not really worth dissecting her personality).
Fonda is obviously better than this film, and so are Bateman and Fey, who play mostly to their strengths, but in doing so for the umpteenth time appear bored with the whole ordeal. Corey Stoll (Netflix’s “House of Cards”, FX’s “The Strain”) is a highlight, and refreshing as the only actor out of his element; Timothy Olyphant (FX’s “Justified”) is underused and over-simplified as the troubled Horry, whose awkward haircut and relationship with Fey’s embittered Wendy seems like a parody of “Untamed Heart”. And Ben Schwartz, who plays the family rabbi, is only around to get weaseled in the groin and get called by his unfortunate childhood nickname “boner” about a hundred times.
“This Is Where I Leave You” pulls on more strings than it knows how to tie up without the characters eventually resorting to typical pugilistic measures, and it would have been better if director Levy and writer Tropper had decided to leave just a few of these story lines dangling (to be fair, not everything gets fully resolved, but even a couple bombshell revelations in the final act are fairly predictable). It’s a film that wants to explore some real domestic issues while mining them for humor, but Levy’s approach is so heavy-handed that it ruins some potentially hilarious situations. There are some surprises (it’s not hard for Wendy’s potty-training toddler played by Cade Lappin to steal the show), but with more than its share of contrivances (a sexual encounter being broadcast over a baby monitor that has been left on, pot smoke setting off the fire sprinklers during temple, etc.), “This is Where I Leave You” ends up as just a mixed bag of chuckles and groans.