Tina Fey and Jason Bateman in “This Is Where I Leave You.” | WARNER BROS.
Nearly every time “This Is Where I Leave You” shows the confidence to rely on its sometimes razor-sharp dialogue and let this terrific ensemble cast do their magic, we get another kid-pooping joke or another pratfall or another physical confrontation.
What a wasted opportunity.
You’re going to gather Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver — and we’re just getting warmed up here listing the cast — in the same room, and you’re going to make them engage in such clichéd scenes as:
† Character walks in at the wrong moment and misunderstands a hug for a kiss.
† “I found a joint! Let’s get high!”
† Comedic wrestling matches on the front lawn.
† Blurting out secrets in front of friends and family.
† Couple scheduling intercourse because they’ve been trying to get pregnant forever.
And that’s just a partial list. As directed by Shawn Levy (the “Night at the Museum” movies), “This Is Where I Leave You” strikes a false note from the opening scene, when radio producer Judd Altman (Bateman) does the obligatory walk through the office scene where dozens of overacting extras are carrying files, answering phones, high-fiving Judd, etc., before Judd settles into the control booth and cackles at the macho on-air antics of Dax Shepard’s Wade Beaufort.
As someone who has worked in radio for years, can I just say this scene is a realistic depiction of talk radio in the same way “The Lego Movie” is a realistic depiction of what happens when one plays with Legos.
Same goes for the next scene, when Judd surprises his wife with a birthday cake, and the surprise is on him.
This is all just buildup to a family version of “The Big Chill.” When Judd’s dad passes away, his mother (Jane Fonda) informs all four grown siblings their father’s dying wish was for them to sit shiva. Presto! They all have to spend a week together under the same roof.
Tina Fey is Wendy, the sister/mother figure with two young children and a husband who spends every minute making deals on his cell phone. Corey Stoll is Paul, the oldest brother who stayed behind and helped Dad with the store while everyone else got to chase their dreams. Adam Driver is Phillip, the effed-up youngest son who shows up late to the burial blasting music from his convertible. (Again: Other than in the movies, who ever shows up late at the cemetery in a convertible and keeps the music pumping?)
We’ve already had more characters and more subplots than a breezy, warm-hearted comedy really needs, but the screenplay by Jonathan Tropper (based on his novel) keeps piling it on. Rose Byrne is Judd’s old high school sweetheart, who’s conveniently single and apparently just hanging around, waiting for Judd’s marriage to fall apart. Connie Britton shows up as Phillip’s therapist-turned-lover.
Oh and by the way, living just across the street from the Altmans is Timothy Olyphant’s Horry, who’s never been the same since he suffered that horrible brain injury in a car accident while he was dating Wendy when they were young and in love. And of course Horry wears headbands, so we can see that terrible scar and be reminded he’s all screwed up, as when he gets a wrench out of the garage and then can’t remember why he needed a wrench, I kid you not. This film is nothing if not shameless in its grab for our funny bone and our heart.
Fonda looks amazing, but the jokes about her new breasts wear out their welcome. (Same thing with an ongoing joke about the childhood nickname for the young rabbi overseeing the family memorial.) The potty-training stuff feels lifted from one of Adam Sandler’s bombs.
Few actors do deadpan malaise better than Jason Bateman. Driver, a breakout talent from his work on “Girls,” puts a unique spin on a couple of lines. Tina Fey is Tina Fey, but she can write better material for herself while taking a break from shooting a commercial.
Across the board, I like the actors in this movie so much better than I like — or care about — the characters they play in this film. Whatever Woody Allen’s next screenplay is, he could take this entire cast and plug them in, and away we’d go.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Shawn Levy and written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his novel. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated R (for language, sexual content and some drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.