'This Is Where I Leave You': The cast is better than the over-the-top movie

Tina Fey and Jason Bateman star in 'Leave,' which centers on a family that gathers to mourn the death of its patriarch. The cast is great, but the movie can't seem to settle on a tone. 

Jessica Miglio/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
'This Is Where I Leave You' stars Tina Fey (l.), Jason Bateman (second from l.), Corey Stoll (second from r.), and Adam Driver (r.).

Somebody dies. Family gathers to mourn. Everybody's stuck in one house, with all their quirks and foibles and enough emotional baggage to fill an aircraft carrier. What could go wrong? Ha ha. What couldn't?

This scenario could be a drama or a comedy — or, in the case of "This Is Where I Leave You," both: a dramedy. In the best dramedies, of course, laughter and tears alternate seamlessly and gracefully, and you leave both entertained and enlightened.

Alas, this isn't that film.

Instead, "This Is Where I Leave You," directed by Shawn Levy and adapted from Jonathan Tropper's novel by the author himself, seems to be constantly questioning – or doubting – what it is. Which means that just when it enters into some meaty issues that deserve serious treatment, it gets nervous and falls into forced comedy – or full-on slapstick. Which can get grating.

And it's a shame, because the film has an A-list ensemble cast, headed by Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, but also featuring nice work from Jane Fonda, Connie Britton, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Debra Monk and more. A cast like that deserves an A-list movie; they got maybe a solid B.

Bateman plays Judd Altman, a radio producer with a pretty wife and an even prettier Manhattan apartment. But he arrives home one afternoon and finds the wife is having an affair with his own boss.

This obviously throws Judd for a loop, but then he gets even graver news: His father has died. He rushes to the suburban homestead, where Mom (Fonda) awaits her four children with a firm requirement: They will honor Dad's dying wish to follow Jewish ritual and sit shiva – grieving together, with guests – for seven days.

This pleases no one, especially Wendy (Fey), Judd's sharp-tongued, bossypants sister, or the other brothers, Paul (Stoll), the mature one, who stayed home to run the family business, and Phillip (Driver), the immature one, who can't get settled in life.

Fonda has fun here as an uninhibited child psychologist who became famous for a book years ago that spilled her family's secrets. 

Once everyone's together, things can start to fall apart. Judd wants to keep his impending divorce a secret, but bossy Wendy won't let him. (Their talking-over-each-other public spat is one of the movie's more enjoyable scenes.) Phillip has brought home a smart, sexy, wealthy older woman (Britton, very appealing here) but struggles to stay faithful.

Wendy's having troubles of her own – she's married to a dolt – and still has strong feelings for an old love. (Fey gives an understated performance here.) Judd is trying to forget his cheating wife, but she shows up anyway. Meanwhile, Judd's also reconnecting with a lovely friend from the past, Penny (Byrne). And Paul and his wife, Annie, are desperately trying to conceive. 

It's the scenes of over-obvious mayhem – or ultra-thick sappiness – that ultimately hurt an appealing film. Does every conflict have to involve people screaming and shouting, then falling over each other in a brawl? 

That's not to say the film isn't often enjoyable. It's a pleasure to watch pros like these interact. But at one point, after a particularly silly brawl, poor Wendy asks if everyone can just act more normal. And she's right. It would have made for a more interesting film.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.