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 bonking 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. She loves talking about sex, which embarrasses her family no end, and also loves showing off her very prominent boob job.
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. Ever been to a shiva where the baby monitor transmits vigorous sex from upstairs to the mourning guests? Us neither.
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? At one point, the three adult brothers end up getting high together, in an inappropriate place. They just sit there and laugh loudly. It feels totally fake.
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.
"This is Where I Leave You," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for language, sexual content and some drug use." Running time: 103 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.