The jury’s still very much out over whether Shawn Levy is an inept comedy director masquerading as an opportunistically dramatic one, or vice versa. And they may never return a verdict for lack of interest, though it would be a shame not to give a movie as flagrantly indecisive as This Is Where I Leave You its day enduring grueling cross-examination. It would certainly offer a more compelling portrait of frayed nerves and tense gear shifts than the movie itself. Starring Jason Bateman as Judd Altman, the dourest of four dysfunctional siblings and the most middlebrow middle child imaginable, the pity party begins with Judd’s discovery that his wife has been sleeping with his boss, host of a dude-brah talk-radio show. He’s already down for the count when his sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), calls him with news that their father just passed away. Their mother says his dying wish was that they would all sit shiva for seven days despite the fact that, as Wendy points out, they’ll be sitting where the family still puts up their Christmas tree every year.
With a sitcom-bred short attention span that’s more Tracy Jordan than Tracy Letts, much less Eugene O’Neill, screenwriter Jonathon Tropper (working from his own novel) locks his neurotic players into the scenario like irregular Lego pieces. None of them fit together, but they’re nonetheless sold as a matching set. It doesn’t help matters that, intentionally or not, Tropper renamed his familial clan after a director whose knack for giving clarity to ensemble chaos makes these Altmans look like confused ants in a death spiral by comparison. The overly meticulous Judd, the alcoholic-in-training Wendy, the flavorless oldest child Paul (Corey Stoll, almost unrecognizable in a role that evaporates like a clockwork chimera), and the reckless oops-baby Phillip (Adam Driver, very recognizable as another lunkheaded hunk) are less siblings than they are a checklist of easily antagonized archetypes, wired specifically to go haywire on command.
And whenever the quartet fails to set each other off, Tropper and Levy simply fall back on the grotesque insurance policy represented by Jane Fonda’s performance as the family matriarch, a boob-jobbed libertine deep-throating life atop a cushion of country-club affluence procured from the bestselling books she wrote about her own maladjusted brood. Fonda can’t be held accountable for holding her nose and going along with Levy and Tropper’s working thesis that Hillary Altman’s overly lenient parenting and indulgent attitudes toward healthy sexuality fashioned a generation of middle-aged adolescents who are either barren or satyric. (In one scene, she reminisces about how Phillip as a toddler used to think his wee-wee was a Tootsie Roll and was always trying to lick it…and then demonstrates the contortions.) But Fonda can at least be commended for not really even trying to sell the movie’s least credible revelation, delivered through a kiss so stilted and compulsory one can’t help but flash back on Bree Michaels checking her watch. In a film filled with good actors wrestling with bad material and losing, you could almost say it takes a great actress to win strictly on goodwill points.