There’s a part of this superhero-fatigued moviegoer that wants to just endorse This Is Where I Leave You on general principle and be done with it. This is, on paper, everything I hope for from mainstream, middlebrow cinema these days, the kind of movie tentpole-obsessed studios rarely bother to make anymore: a mid-budget, R-rated, serio-comic drama with a brain, a heart, and a good cast. “Good” is an understatement, really; this is a movie all but bursting with terrific actors. Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, Ben Schwartz — even the bit players are terrific. And it speaks volumes about the current shortage of this type of project that so many talented people were willing to attach themselves to a picture as subpar as this one.
Bateman, Fey, Driver, and Stoll play adult siblings of varying dysfunction, reassembling for one week to sit shiva — and they’re supposed to be non-practicing, but, y’know, c’mon — for their deceased father, at the insistence of their mother (Fonda). Bateman’s Judd gets the most screen time, as a seemingly happily married radio producer whose world falls to pieces when he discovers his wife (Spencer) in bed with his boss (Shepard), in a scene so trite that They Came Together somehow managed to parody it two months ago. Judd resists even telling his family about their separation, particularly his oversharing mother, a psychiatrist whose book about their family has been the bane of their existence. Luckily, he just so happens to run into an old almost-girlfriend (Rose Byrne), and if you think that a major movie in 2014 wouldn’t dare give us another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, you’ve overestimated this one.
His is just one of the overstuffed picture’s many subplots — Jonathan Tropper wrote the screenplay adaptation from his novel, and though I haven’t read it, I’m willing to bet there wasn’t a lot of darling-killing in the transition. As lovely as it is to see Fey do some mildly dramatic work, or to see Britton or Hahn or Stoll in much of anything, their subplots are so poorly developed and barely present that it’s hard to know why those stories even exist, except that they’re presumably carried over from the novel, where they’d have room and space to matter.
More problematic, though, is that Tropper’s infinitely better at writing comedy than drama, and predictably, the film swings much more in the latter direction the longer it goes. When they put these funny people together in the same room and let them play, there’s no denying that it works, and some of the combinations are sharp as well; Bateman and Fey get a good, tight rhythm going in their two scenes, and he and Byrne have enough of a spark to make their predictable romance (mostly) credible. And Driver, the very picture of sneaky playfulness, pretty much walks away with the movie (the tart spin he puts on the line “Touché, pussycat!” lands one of the movie’s biggest laughs).
But even these gifted actors can’t do anything with the Hallmark platitudes and hoary clichés of the warmed-over melodrama that ultimately smothers what could have been a decent ensemble comedy. And director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel, the Pink Panther remake) apparently decided the serious stuff wasn’t hackneyed or obvious enough, so he trawls Michael Giaccchino’s plinky score atop every scene, just so we’re 100 percent clear on how we’re supposed to feel at every single second. It’s not a movie that trusts its audience much, is what I’m saying.
And that’s a shame. The actors take their good moments where they can find them — most, significantly, when they’re not speaking (Bateman has a moment of real pain after that early adultery discovery, and Fey gets a great beat at the end where she almost cries, and then chooses not to). But none of them are working with much of anything here, and they know it. This Is Where I Leave You is notable for the volume of great television represented by its cast: it assembles key players from Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Girls, House of Cards, Friday Night Lights, Justified, Parenthood, Rectified, and Parks and Recreation, and none of them are given characters with the depth of a single episode of those shows, to say nothing of an entire series. I’m usually one to dismiss outright that whole “television-is-better-than-movies” chestnut. But if grown-up comedy/drama cinema is so broken that this is the best the movies can do with a cast like this, it’s pretty easy to get where the TV boosters are coming from.
This Is Where I Leave You is out Friday in wide release.