Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his novel. Produced by Levy, Paula Weinstein, Jeffrey Levine. Photographed by Terry Stacey. Edited by Dean Zimmerman. Music by Michael Giacchino. Starring Jason Bateman (Judd Altman), Tina Fey (Wendy), Adam Driver (Phillip), Rose Byrne (Penny Moore), Corey Stoll (Paul), Kathryn Hahn (Alice), Connie Britton (Tracy), Timothy Olyphant (Horry), Abigail Spencer (Quinn), Dax Shepard (Wade Boulanger), Jane Fonda (Hillary), Aaron Lazar (Barry), Ben Schwartz (Boner).
This is Where I Leave You is a dysfunctional family comedy/drama that devolves into a traffic jam. It takes a familiar (but workable) premise and then burdens it with too many characters, details, quirks, subplots, former lovers, current partners, revelations, reversals, ironies, and zingers. Screenwriter Jonathan Tropper has adapted his own well-liked novel, but it feels like something genuine that was ambushed by an army of sitcom writers along the way. It’s likable and has a big heart, but its overwritten state is just too much of a muchness.
The center, more or less, is Judd Altman, played by Jason Bateman in the mode he knows best – smarmy guy who unsuccessfully protects real hurt. He arrives home early one day to find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepherd), and Judd retreats into misery. When his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls to let him know about the death of their distant father, both siblings return to the Altman house, which is ruled by mother Hillary (Jane Fonda, in the Jane Fonda role). Although no one in the family was a practicing Jew, dad’s will stipulates for everyone to mourn sitting shiva: that is, all under one roof for seven days. That also includes uptight and successful brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and womanizing layabout Phillip (Adam Driver).
Each sibling except for Judd brings along a significant other (Aaron Lazar for Fey, Kathryn Hahn for Stoll, Connie Britton for Driver), and some of them disappear for large chunks of time, even though the house is big but isn’t that big (Judd is relegated to sleeping in the basement in a bed that doesn’t fold out all the way). Judd himself reacquaints with high school flame Penny (Rose Byrne), a character that we learn absolutely nothing about except for (a) she likes Judd and (b) she runs an ice rink that no one, apparently, ever goes to. The movie just doesn’t have time for her, nor does it have time for either of Fey’s love interests (she also has mentally handicapped Timothy Olyphant across the street), or even very much time for the great Jane Fonda. Nor does it give Quinn much credit once she re-enters the picture under very changed circumstances. Ben Schwartz shows up as the “hip” rabbi overseeing the shiva, and his schtick is funny, but it’s too many flourishes spent on a character who is not at all the focus here. Breathlessness is the name of the game in This is Where I Leave You, not in the manner of a farce, but in the style of a story that is constantly looking at its watch.
And yet. The movie is sincere and well-acted. Bateman and Fey are welcome in any movie, and they generate a warm brother-sister relationship that feels natural and real. Fonda makes her big moment of the film really work. Driver is brilliant and winning as a brother who can light anyone’s fuse, and Stoll is dependable as a man with a very short one. The spouse and girlfriend scenes play like convincing trailers for movies out there somewhere that are about them. The only two actors that come closest to not working here are Olyphant and Byrne; both can be fine performers, but only when they are being given actual characters to play. It’s a very busy movie, and the good moments that are there feel like the eyes of loud mini-hurricanes. The family’s surname, Altman, I fear may be a reference to a certain movie director who was infinitely more gifted at juggling a large cast of seriocomic characters.
The director of record here, however, is Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night), who has not really distinguished himself at plumbing the emotional depths that could be explored. He keeps everything surface-level and nice, and that only helps the feeling that every emotional beat feels less therapeutic and more like obligatory marks on a bingo card. A dysfunctional family can certainly be mined for the material of fine dramedy, but perhaps one could have been made here that was paced with more honesty, with fewer side plots, and where the characters speak in fewer punchlines. Perhaps a movie where Judd Altman asks not just where he was left, but why. B-