"I'd been forced into a movie, and there was nothing I could do but follow the script," says the narrator of Jonathan Tropper's novel, This Is Where I Leave You.
That line isn't in the movie version of This Is Where I Leave You, which Topper adapted for the screen, but it captures the experience of watching it, with the operative word being "forced." Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum series) goes into indie mode (homecoming, dysfunctional family) by jamming comic and poignant moments in a tottering Dagwood sandwich of life experience. Between the layers of infidelity, cancer, brain damage and pregnancy, there are the supposedly hilarious oversized breast implants, a toddler with a potty chair and a rabbi named "Boner."
As with so many movies where the script constructs experiences that are contrived and off-putting, you hope the actors can capture the emotional truth of some scenes, even if the entire apparatus feels bogus. This is Where I Leave You has an imposing cast, including Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver and Rose Byrne, and in smaller roles, strong character actors like Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards).
Bateman's role is to serve as the tolerable, understated centre of this confusion of emotional excess. Bateman, as those who watched (or Netflix binge-watched) the television series Arrested Development know, is a specialist as the shamed son of an embarrassing family. Here he plays Judd Altman, producer for a shock jock. One day, Judd leaves work early and brings a lit birthday cake into the bedroom to surprise his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer), who he discovers in bed with someone he knows rather well. This scene seems intended to be mortifying and hilarious, but is really just puzzling. Who exactly brings a lit birthday cake into a bedroom in the middle of the afternoon?
Shortly after, Judd's sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls to say their father is dead and he is expected to return home to their Westchester County manse and spend a week sitting shiva with his mother (Jane Fonda) and other siblings Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver). The shiva is supposedly the father's dying wish, though the siblings are skeptical: Their father was an atheist. The audience is also skeptical because this feels like a plot device to get everyone to trot out their wounds and grievances, with lots of hugs and lessons to ensue.
At first, the main problem appears to be Mom, a therapist who wrote a famous book on child-raising called Cradle and All that humiliated all her children. She overshares anecdotes about her sex life while displaying her bulbous breasts, which she bought for an upcoming book tour. Okay, she's a narcissist, and Fonda, with her overarticulated delivery and disingenuous aging sexpot clowning, is well-cast, but no one in the film takes Mom very seriously. And dear, dead Dad, by all accounts, was a paragon. So why is everyone so messed up?
All of the adult children are miserable and neurotic, Judd observes, repeatedly. The oldest brother Paul (Stoll) is the control freak who stayed in the hometown. He is desperately trying to have a baby with Judd's former girlfriend, Alice (Kathryn Hahn). Wendy (Fey) doesn't really love her finance wiz husband, but carries a flame for her brain-damaged former boyfriend (Timothy Oliphant). Perpetual screw-up Phillip (Driver) has hooked up with an older woman (Connie Britton), a more nurturing surrogate for his mom.
Among the surfeit of extra characters in the film, the most prominent is Judd's high school flame, the ageless, improbably still single, dizzily charming Penny (Rose Byrne), who teaches skating and twirls around at the skating rink for a living and says things like, "anything can happen. Anything can happen all the time," which makes you think it's lucky that she's so pretty.
Much of Bateman's thankless role is to play skeptical, eye-scrunching confessor to the other, more eccentric characters. He has one good comic scene with Fey, where he's repeatedly telling her to shut up, but her character is wan and underdeveloped, and Fey herself is invariably stiff when she attempts to be sincere. But the process of sifting for actors' honest moments isn't entirely in vain. Two actors leave a memorable impression: Driver (Girls), with his jolting explosions of energy, makes you feel for Phillip's vibrancy, his abrasiveness and vulnerability. As his cougar girlfriend, Britton, in the briefest of scenes with Bateman, conveys a world of information about an older woman who falls in love with the wrong younger man. Her weary experience and emotional rawness, the place the rest of the movie is striving to reach, briefly flickers into focus.