“This Is Where I Leave You” is a virtually plot-free cliché collection that entertains nevertheless.
That’s because this family dramedy also collected highly appealing actors who know how to sell a line or situation regardless of its actual merit. As members of a family grieving its patriarch, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Jane Fonda keep the film watchable from moment to moment.
They craft characters who seem related to one another, despite Jonathan Tropper’s tired script (from his own novel) and journeyman Shawn Levy’s (“Night at the Museum,” Fey’s “Date Night”) uninspired direction.
It’s too easy to call “Leave You” hackneyed without giving details, so let’s give them. They start with an overabundance of the two p’s that indicate lack of imagination – pot and potty humor – and extend to most of the film’s situations.
Wendy (Fey) has a wheeler-dealer husband who should comfort his wife but instead works his cellphone, like Dermot Mulroney in “August: Osage County.” Wendy’s brother, Judd (Bateman), arrives at the family home without his wife and gets its worst accommodations, on a basement fold-out bed that does not fold out all the way, evoking Steve Carell’s digs in “Dan in Real Life.”
At movie’s start, before his father dies and he must head upstate, Judd arrives at his New York City apartment to find his radio shock-jock boss (Dax Shepard, luxuriating in dirt-baggery) in bed with Judd’s wife. This in-flagrante moment of course derives from every movie ever made apart from “Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.”
Yet Bateman seems so defeated, post-cuckolding, that he freshens this setup. Ditto Fey as the neglected wife; Driver as the live-wire youngest son, Philip (he’s a pot dealer, natch, who screeches up to the gravesite in a Porsche and blazes up with his brothers in honor of their closet-stoner dad); and Fonda, doing a variation on her only-as-old-as-you-feel persona as the brood’s liberated mother, Hilary.
A therapist and best-selling author who mined her children’s lives in her books, Hilary proudly sports the results of her breast-enhancement surgery and talks openly about her late husband’s bedroom prowess. Her only hint of tradition is her insistence that Judd, Wendy, Philip and eldest son Paul (an underused Corey Stoll) all sit shiva with her, because it was the father’s dying wish. This entails sitting next to each other for seven days, greeting friends who have come to pay respects.
“Arrested Development” vet Bateman brings mad family-dysfunction-comedy skills to “Leave You.” So it’s no surprise Judd is droll instead of freaked when his mother’s fake breasts hang out of her robe. Michael Bluth dealt with worse.
But Bateman’s not just doing a version of his well-known TV character. Here, as in “Bad Words” earlier this year, Bateman coats his signature sharp-witted-yet-hapless persona with an intriguing hardness. Already smarting from his wife’s affair, Judd wants to get through this family time without breaking. Because he comes from a family of smart alecks, Judd keeps up with their humor, but the set of his jaw tells us it’s reflex.
Judd does not tell his mother he split with his wife, claiming his significant other stayed home with a bad back. Only Wendy knows. She wants him to spill, leading to a shiva-sitting, fast-talking back and forth between Fey and Bateman that plays as a highly believable sibling exchange.
Although Wendy exhibits the same quick wit as her brother, “Leave You” also displaces Fey from her glib comfort zone. That displacement happened partly because Bateman already took the likable-yet-luckless spot usually reserved for Fey.
For the first time on screen, Fey plays a different person rather than a version of her comic persona. She is soulful and nurturing as Wendy, mother to two small children – one of whom is the source of all that potty humor – and historical coaxer of Judd to do the right thing.
Fey lends palpable emotion to Wendy’s yearning for her childhood neighbor and great love (Timothy Olyphant), whose brain injury from a car accident made their relationship untenable. That Fey and Olyphant make this bond plausible, despite Olyphant’s bad man-bob hairdo, testifies to their skill.
Fey also plays well opposite Driver, who is as unbridled here as he is on “Girls.” It’s as if he can feel a scene lagging, then makes it his mission to enliven it with a show of physicality or cockeyed line reading. His gambits usually pay off, because there is passion behind them. When Philip thanks his sister for helping raise him, Driver exudes such sincerity that he seems to turn Fey bashful, adding to the moment’s loveliness.
Fonda, too, always is authentic, even if Hilary’s implants say otherwise. Fonda inherited a folksiness from her dad, Henry Fonda, that did not come to the fore until recent years. She gives her character a warmth as well as a wisdom that allows her to withstand her grown children’s protests and petty squabbles, the way real mothers her age often can.
These performances compensate for a lack of plot movement beyond the father’s death and Judd’s romance with a local skating instructor (a radiant Rose Byrne) who always had a crush on him. You know the type – the unlikely townie flower that blossomed in the hero’s absence.
But why focus on cliché when “Leave You” also offers irritating visuals? The first section includes too many medium shots and cuts, and too often, a stray shoulder creeps into the frame.
This effect grows less noticeable as the film continues, though it is hard to say whether it stopped or we grew used to it. Come to think of it, this aspect also mirrors the experience of spending a week in a house with one’s extended family.