Why is this film not being released at Christmas? The sacred tradition of Jews and Chinese food and going to the movies on December 25 must be upheld! And if the fractious Altman clan is to gather for an awkward and altogether irreverent weeklong mourning period (sitting shiva) for its deceased patriarch, your family might well find some familiar types among them. The widowed mother (Jane Fonda) wears her conspicuous boob job with blithe pride, making her four grown children distinctly uncomfortable. Among them, Corey Stoll is the son who stayed to run the family business; Adam Driver is the ne’er-do-well youngest son who fled to the West Coast; Tina Fey is the unhappily married wife and mother, also visiting; and Jason Bateman is the New York radio producer whose marriage just imploded (not that he’s telling anyone, not just now, not on this trip, no way).
Now there’s a lot of ground to cover in this cluttered adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 novel (he did the adaptation), directed with no great subtlety by Shawn Levy, who helmed all those wildly popular, family-friendly Night at the Museum movies. Clearly the studios are in his debt; he had money to spend on his starry cast, and he shows them all to maximum benefit (though none have to work very hard in so many short scenes). This Is Where I Leave You is A-material, originally attached to Steven Spielberg, which brings us back to the mid-September release date. It’s not coming out on Christmas for a reason.
Scene by scene, performer by performer, there are moments that work well here. Fey shows tender lost love for her old boyfriend (Timothy Olyphant), a guy who never left town owing to an accident; how culpable she was, the script is reluctant to spell out. (All parties must be treated fairly and sympathetically.) Driver, of Girls, brings a welcome jolt of energy to a feckless, underwritten character; I particularly liked his smilingly uncontrite
reading of “I’m ashamed” when confronted with eavesdropping on sibling sex; the guy doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Bateman’s beleaguered, dry delivery is as effective as ever, though he can’t save lines like “I have spent my entire life playing it safe.” Outside the Altman family are some interesting women: Rose Byrne (pursuing Bateman), Connie Britton (tiring of Driver), and Kathryn Hahn (married to Stoll, also Bateman’s ex). You want to see more of them—especially Hahn’s guerrilla-comedy aggression (as demonstrated in Bad Words with Bateman) and Britton’s old-school glamour (she’s got such a poised, classic quality you could imagine her as a creature of the studio era).
On the whole, however, Levy is fatally wed to a formula of tears, outbursts, wise counsel, and reconciliation—repeated often. I lost track of the number of times Bateman and Fey sat on the roof discussing their siblings; one scene would’ve sufficed, and fewer but longer scenes might’ve allowed them to present full characters. But Levy cuts for comedy, regularly interrupting the pathos—remember the dead father? that guy?—with pooping toddlers and antic fistfights. But if you like a nice buffet after the funeral, This Is Where I Leave You offers something for everyone: adultery, surprise pregnancy, and sudden declarations of sexual orientation. And maybe that’s your family, too, or how you spend the holidays.
Says Fonda, prophetically, “It’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be uncomfortable. And we are all gonna get on each other’s nerves.” Oh, wait, were we not talking about the movie? Opens Fri., Sept 19. at SIFF Cinema Uptown, Guild 45th, and other theaters. Rated R. 103 minutes.