Almost any situation can be bearable if you surround yourself with the right people. At its core, “This Is Where I Leave You” is a schmaltzy, poorly-conceived melodrama that should have you groaning and eye-rolling your way right out of the theater.
But because it is packed, packed I say, with so many talented, likable actors who have gamely committed to this hot mess, the movie becomes enjoyable in spite of itself.
Built around the well-worn trope of a dysfunctional family reunited after a tragedy, “This Is Where I Leave You” brings the sprawling Altman family (try not to bang your head on the Robert Altman homage) back under one roof after the death of their patriarch.
Told their father’s dying wish was for the entire family to sit shiva, everyone is forced into close quarters for seven days while bringing all their emotional baggage with them.
Under the most strain is Judd (Jason Bateman), who comes home just after discovering his wife (Abigail Spencer) had been having an affair with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepard).
Of course, the rest of the family isn’t doing that much better. Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is an unappreciated wife and mother who still pines for the traumatically-brain-injured boy next door (Timothy Olyphant). Eldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is struggling to keep the family business afloat while dealing with fertility issues with his wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn). And emotionally stunted baby brother Phillip (Adam Driver) brings along his new girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton), who just so happens to also be his therapist.
The only one who seemingly has her act together is the newly widowed mother Hillary (Jane Fonda), a psychologist who traumatized her family by writing a best-selling book about them.
There are a ton of problems with this movie, most of them stemming from the fact it feels underwritten. Screenwriter Jonathan Tropper bravely adapts his own novel and while he strives to find time for all of his characters to share a moment together, it becomes too unwieldy; like trying to fit 10 pounds of emotional conflict into a five-pound bag.
You get the feeling this would have worked much better in long-form as a television show as we gloss right over huge emotional beats like the disintegration of Wendy’s family, Judd’s blossoming relationship with a quirky old flame (Rose Byrne), and a third-act twist that is completely unearned because it comes seemingly out of nowhere.
Also, and most importantly, we are never given an adequate explanation as to how this family became so bitterly estranged and broken. All these people didn’t get this screwed up by accident.
“This Is Where I Leave You” was directed by Shawn Levy, a big-tent director as well known for his hits (the “Night at the Museum” franchise, “Reel Steel”) as his misses (“The Pink Panther,” “Date Night,” “The Internship”). His broad, crowd-pleasing approach makes it tough to hit those deeper, emotional beats, thus putting all of the heavy lifting directly on the shoulders of the actors. Fortunately, they are up to the task.
I got such a kick hanging out with everyone in this cast and was delighted every time they were able to mine a laugh or an honest emotional moment out of this cinematic quagmire.
Bateman is as steady as a rock in a movie like this. Driver steals almost every scene he is in and is destined for stardom. But it’s Fey who shows off some surprising range and delivers the most from the least realized character.
Watching “This Is Where I Leave You,” I felt a strange kinship with the characters as we were all stuck in a lousy situation just trying to make the best of it. Coming out the other end of it, I got the feeling there’s nothing this cast couldn’t make at least tolerable. Sign these guys up for a remake of “Ishtar,” they’re going to need a real challenge after this.
“This Is Where I Leave You” is rated R for language, sexual content, and some drug use.