"This Is Where I Leave You" has a dream cast and rich literary source materialJonathan Tropper's acclaimed 2009 bestseller, which the author has adapted for the screen himselfso it makes it all the more a squandered opportunity that the film isn't very good. Undernourished, choppily edited and undermined by an insistence on turning just about every would-be touching moment into a forced joke, this familial rendition of "The Big Chill" earns most of its bright spots from its excellent ensemble. Here is a project that should have been an ace in the hole, but Shawn Levy (2013's "The Internship
") proves an ill-advised choice as director, too often reverting to the sophomoric tone of one of his "Night at the Museum
Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is having a miserable year. He walked in on wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) having an affair with his boss, radio personality Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard), subsequently lost his job, and has just received the sad news that his father has passed away. Mom Hillary (Jane Fonda) informs her four grown childrenJudd, straight-laced eldest Paul (Corey Stoll), mother-of-two Wendy (Tina Fey), and free-wheeling youngest Phillip (Adam Driver)that they must abide by their dad's last request for them to sit Shiva for the customary seven days. As Judd tries to keep his impending divorce a secret, his feelings for an old flame, ice skating instructor Penny (Rose Byrne), are once again sparked when they run into each other. For Wendy, she is torn between a faltering marriage with the workaholic Barry (Aaron Lazar) and her true love, Horry (Timothy Olyphant), whose brain injury ended their romance when they were twenty. Meanwhile, Paul and wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) have begun to stress over their inability to get pregnant, and Phillip shows up with much older, much more successful therapist girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton) in tow.
There is chemistry between the cast members of "This Is Where I Leave You," but the film barely punctures the surface of most of its characters. Granted, there are over a dozen major roles to juggle, but, whether it is the fault of Tropper's streamlined script or a botched edit, the final cut feels curiously half-finished. Actors disappear for long stretches without any explanation as to what their characters have been doing day-to-day as they sit Shiva with the family. Relationships are treated as weakly developed abstracts with not nearly enough time devoted to any one of them. Critical histories of certain pairings, like Wendy and Horry, as well as Judd and Penny, are skimmed over and never properly delved into, thus failing to inform their present-day stories. In place of this missing helping of substance are lame running gags (e.g., Hillary's breast implants, Wendy's toddler son's potty training habits) that aren't funny the first time and become outright obnoxious by the third or fifth or tenth instance.
Jason Bateman (2014's "Bad Words
") is the glue that holds together the narrative, the core protagonist whom the picture follows. He is superb in the part of Judd, finding layers of regret and guarded emotion as a man who has never taken chances. As Wendy, Tina Fey (2014's "Muppets Most Wanted
") capably widens her range as a conflicted wife and mother who can't help but wonder what might have been if she hadn't settled into the life she thought she was supposed to lead. It is a sign of the movie's negligence to detail that Wendy is hardly ever seen parenting or interacting with husband Barry, who vanishes for a solid half-hour and then shows back up to permanently exit the scene. Adam Driver (2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis
") and Corey Stoll (2014's "Non-Stop
") round out the Altman siblings as black-sheep Phillip and the bland Paul, doing fine without as much to work with. Jane Fonda (2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler
") continues to be an even bigger knockout the older she gets, though it's sad that most of matriarch Hillary's material revolves directly around her new breasts and an intimate third-act revelation that is distastefully treated as a punchline.
Connie Britton (2013's "The To Do List
") and Rose Byrne (2014's "Neighbors
") are standouts among the supporting participants as Tracy and Penny, bringing notable locks and dramatic nuance to intriguing characters who are utilized too infrequently. Why Britton's Tracy is with Phillip leaves everybody scratching their heads, and the movie is no help in the matter since they share so few scenes. Mostly, she just stands in various doorways. As for Byrne's gregariously charming Penny, she is supposedly an ice skating instructor, but is never seen doing anything at the perpetually desolate rink other than skating by herself as '80s ballads play over the speakers. With just a few minor tweaks, it is easy to imagine how this could be turned into a creepy horror scenario. Kathryn Hahn (2013's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
") is an always-welcome presence no matter what film she is in, though her fertility subplot is mostly an afterthought and a sequence where she makes the moves on ex-boyfriend Judd is handled all wrong by director Levy. There are also heaps of untouched potential in Timothy Olyphant's (2011's "I Am Number Four
") touching portrayal of Horry, still dealing every day with the reverberations of his brain injuries. His scenes with Wendy come off as reserved and anticlimactic.
There are a handful of really nice moments in "This Is Where I Leave You" the heart-to-heart talks Judd and Wendy share on the roof of their childhood home; an exchange between Judd and Tracy as she comes to an important decision about her future with Phillip; the parts set at the ice rink between Judd and Penny as the nostalgic sounds of Cyndi Lauper and INXS fill the frosty airbut for every triumph there are two steps back. The humor goes overboard, popping up where it doesn't belong and paving the way for a number of spectacularly irritating interludes involving front-lawn brawls, a profane argument in a hospital waiting room in front of a Little League team, and a whole bunch of exceedingly lazy boob jokes. A dramedy about the bonds and dysfunctions of family and the possibilities of roads not taken, "This Is Where I Leave You" is too pleased with itself by a half, hiding its valid truths behind a wall of mugging artificiality.