- Family goes better with drinks: from left, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoller
This Is Where I Leave You opens by declaring itself "A Shawn Levy Film," so let's start there. What was it on the résumé of the director of Night at the Museum and the Pink Panther remake that led someone to believe he could handle a story about the complex relationships of a large dysfunctional family attending the funeral of its patriarch?
The family in the film, based on a novel by Jonathan Tropper (who wrote the screenplay), is named Altman, which is mildly ironic: The great director Robert Altman set the bar for this kind of panoramic cinema. Levy, like Altman, began as a TV director, and it seems he still is: He can't handle more than two or three people in the frame at once, and his movie has no rhythm or style. It clunks along on the charm of its actors, a strategy that would work better if he knew how to direct them.
The premise is simple: Dad, an "atheist Jew," has died, and his last wish was for his family to sit shiva. His non-Jewish wife (Jane Fonda), a shrink who penned a tell-all about her sex life and her kids, insists they honor his wish. So three brothers and a sister, who of course have issues, agree to do it. The outcome is familiar: Everyone regrets something, secrets get revealed, people smoke dope, everyone fights and hugs, and will the word "penis" ever cease to be funny? It's like The Big Chill, only with no idealism to lose.
Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll play the sibs, and they're pretty much on their own. Bateman does appealing melancholy well with the right material. The affable Driver is equal parts quirk and quark (a particle we've never seen but know exists). Stoll is a malleable character actor in a miserably written role. Fey, who's preternaturally meta, seems like she's watching the movie rather than appearing in it. Only Fonda, who has grown more relaxed in mature roles, and a poignant Timothy Olyphant, hold our attention worthily.
The last 10 minutes of Levy's cacophony are so warm and fuzzy that my eyes began to itch. But of course, we knew that would happen: You can't fill a multiplex with a story about people who end up hating each other. Like most Hollywood ensemble dramedies, this one doesn't trust its audience. The consequence is a middling trifle that's usually about as funny, original, insightful and intelligent as a penis.