With an all-star ensemble cast, “This Is Where I Leave You” has the potential to be a stellar movie. Adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name, author Jonathan Tropper also wrote the screenplay, this movie flirts with both telenovela-style drama and slapstick comedy. While neither truly to commit to either.
When the father of the Altman clan dies, his children are forced to gather at their childhood home in the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, seven official days of mourning. They’re less than thrilled about this arrangement. The protagonist, Judd (Jason Bateman), has just discovered his wife is cheating on him. With his boss.
His siblings are similarly sad lots. Wendy, (Tina Fey) is stuck in a loveless marriage, while her true love (Timothy Olphant) lives next door, suffering from traumatic brain injury. Paul (Corey Stahl) is the dutiful sibling who stayed at home to help the family business. Pressured by wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) to conceive a child, Paul is miserable. Youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) is the baby of the family, desperately trying to convince the gang that he’s grown up. He’s dating his therapist (Connie Britton) and, well, enough said.
Their wildly inappropriate mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) holds them together in this dysfunctional mess, but she’s no better than the rest. She documented her children’s early adolescence as the subject for her psychology book, fully traumatizing them. Her “bionic boobs,” as Judd dubs them, are the real stars of the movie: half of the punch lines are solely devoted towards Fonda’s chest.
What’s most appalling is not Wendy’s heartbreaking realization that she will never experience true love again. It’s not Alice’s desperation to get pregnant. It’s not even the death of their father itself. It’s that the Altmans, and the movie, fail to commit to anything.
Stahl and Driver come close to undoing their characters’ straightjackets, but no further. Bateman plays Judd with a tangible weariness that he’s unable to shake the entire run time. Though there’s a hint of character development when romance with local girl Penny Moore (Rose Byrne) bubbles, both Bateman and Byrne rely on their tropes of the tired, jaded man and maniac pixie girl, respectively.
Fey, however, who is heralded for her comedic roles on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” handles the rather dramatic role with finesse. Wendy’s storyline is the most tragic yet Fey’s caustic wit brings her character out of the two-dimensional frame in which the others are stuck.
This movie just seems hasty. The comedic timing is sometimes off between deliveries. The depressing events get so elaborate that it’s hard to keep track of who’s suffering from what.
But perhaps that’s the point: This movie does feel like a family get-together. It’s loud and nobody can keep a secret for more than two minutes, but in the end, their tragedies are to be traded, their triumphs to be mutually treasured. It’s about the love crushing out the hate, sappy as that sounds. Take or leave “This Is Where I Leave You,” but that message isn’t going anywhere.