This Is Where I Leave You feels like a social experiment in how much slack we're willing to cut a movie filled with actors we like. There's nothing particularly new or interesting in this umpteenth story about a family coming together after the death of one of their own, and yet the collective goodwill accrued by this comedy-drama's cast is enough to keep us mildly engaged, even if we know we're watching something totally disposable. Gene Siskel used to say that he judged a film by asking himself if it would be more fun simply hanging out with the actors. Here, that's an easy call to make: Frankly, I wish they could all be reassembled for a different, better movie down the road.
Based on Jonathan Tropper's 2009 novel—he also wrote this adaptation— This Is Where I Leave You starts with the sad news that the patriarch of the Altman clan has died in upstate New York. His death spurs the reunion of his four children—responsible eldest son Paul (Corey Stoll), irresponsible youngest child Phillip (Adam Driver), sassy daughter Wendy (Tina Fey), and floundering son Judd (Jason Bateman)—to their childhood home to be with their mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda). The siblings don't enjoy the pleasure of each others' company, but Hillary makes it clear that their father's dying wish was that they sit Shiva for a week as an opportunity to reconnect.
Even if you haven't read the book, you know the drill. Although what follows is blessedly free of the sorts of shocking family secrets that are meant to be great revelations but usually devolve into people crying and yelling at each other interminably, director Shawn Levy spends a lot of time with the siblings as they grapple with their unresolved childhood angst. (Adding to that misery, Hillary became a renowned author decades ago by writing an acclaimed parenting book based on her kids' actual experiences.) There are some gentle regrets and built-up animosities within the Altman family, but This Is Where I Leave You doesn't consider any of that groundbreaking, which is the point: These people are supposed to be stand-ins for every normal, unhappy family.
Levy (previously of Real Steel and the Night at the Museum series) brings his usual bland, professional polish to everything; the result will be completely watchable in 10-minute spurts when you stumble upon it on cable three years from now. There's nothing inherently "bad" about this movie, except that it doesn't have much reason to exist: It's merely the newest installment in the Big Chill-esque, you-can't-go-home-again, family-amirite?!? seriocomic bauble.
Even its main character, Judd, is pretty unmemorable: just another variation on the prototypical Perfect Son Who Has to Learn to Take a Risk character. But as with his costars, Bateman brings a little extra to his too-on-the-nose character, thanks mostly to the rapport he's already established with us. On the big screen, Bateman's never found a role as satisfying as Arrested Development's Michael Bluth—too often, he's just a tiresome comic grump—but with Judd he goes a little deeper, playing a guy who's lost his perfect life after he catches his wife (Abigail Spencer) screwing his boss, a clichéd shock jock (Dax Shepard). Emotionally marooned, Judd returns home and promptly discovers that an old flame (Rose Byrne) still lives there, setting the stage for a predictable but enjoyably tentative courtship. Bateman hasn't had many opportunities to play an old-fashioned romantic lead, and the guise suits him: He and Byrne share such warmth that it makes you sad that they're trapped in such a by-the-numbers story.
That feeling extends to most of the cast. It's worth noting that the actors probably still best known for their TV work—Fey, Driver, and Stoll—are among the film's highlights, as if they're thrilled to finally get a chance to try their hand at substantial movie characters. (Fey, who was also in Levy's Date Night, for once manages to escape the shadow of Liz Lemon, winningly playing an outspoken wife and mother still eaten up by an old boyfriend portrayed by Timothy Olyphant.) Everybody's playing a type, but these actors are such enjoyable company that it almost doesn't matter: I've rarely found myself rooting for everybody onscreen like I was their supportive mother at a piano recital. You're doing good, Adam! Tina, I really liked what you did in that scene!
But the movie's conventionality keeps getting in the way, hemming in the cast. Reversals and twists happen right on cue; resolutions, too. (And speaking of actors I like, it's really a shame how little time Levy gives to Kathryn Hahn and Connie Britton, who play the lovers of the other two brothers.) For a movie partly about loss, This Is Where I Leave You is shockingly unsubstantial: It's grief and personal growth on autopilot. Everybody hugs and learns and goes through the motions.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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