Just last week, The Skeleton Twins arrived in theaters, illustrating for moviegoers how a strong cast can overcome the limitations of mediocre material. By virtue of distribution karma, along comes This Is Where I Leave You, a similarly sitcomish study of dysfunctional siblings, also featuring TV-trained actors working hard to balance the comedic and dramatic demands of their roles. This time, however, the math doesn’t play in the stars’ favor: While This Is Where I Leave You boasts about three times as many good performances as The Skeleton Twins—seriously, take a gander at that cast list above—it’s also cursed with roughly five times as much indie-movie phoniness. The result is the ensemble dramedy as noble losing battle: Prime time headliners wrestle valiantly with a synthetic mixture of pratfalls and heart-to-hearts, struggling (and mostly failing) to make the results look like a movie instead of an exercise in bathetic screenwriting conventions.
Though based on a novel by Jonathan Tropper, who’s adapted his own work for the screen, This Is Where I Leave You most often resembles a Zach Braff rewrite of August: Osage County. The death of a family patriarch brings together four adult siblings, whose mother (Jane Fonda) convinces them to sit Shiva to honor their father’s dying wishes. Each character has an identifiable life issue. Judd (Jason Bateman), the nominal protagonist, is divorcing his wife (Abigail Spencer) for sleeping with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepard). His sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), is stuck in a loveless marriage and remains hung up on her old sweetheart (Timothy Olyphant), who still lives with his mother because of a debilitating brain injury he suffered years earlier. Paul (Corey Stoll) struggles to impregnate his wife Alice (Kathyrn Hahn), and to forget that she used to date his brother, Judd. And Phillip (Adam Driver), the baby of the family, bumbles through a doomed relationship with his much-older psychiatrist (Connie Britton), fighting the urge to cheat on her with the locals.
Tempting though it might be to lay fault with director Shawn Levy, best known for such studio tripe as the Night At The Museum movies, the problems here stem mainly from the narrative and how it’s constructed. Almost immediately, a pattern emerges: Some moment of broad comedy—a joke about Mom’s boob job; the brothers getting high at church and setting off a fire alarm; everyone listening in on the baby monitor as Paul and Alice have sex—is quickly offset by a serious, earnest chat between two characters. Gradually, the latter vastly outnumber the former, and the result starts to play like an extended Very Special Episode, heavy on what Larry David would derisively call “hugging and learning.”
All of which is a shame, because, again, just about everyone on-screen invests completely in his or her manufactured arc, selling the sentimental snake-oil as emotional wisdom. Driver, for example, adds another hilarious lout to his growing collection of them; there’s maybe no one working today better at playing clueless twentysomethings. And Bateman throws his heart into the assignment: Whether tentatively romancing an old acquaintance (Rose Byrne) or belatedly recalling a happy memory of his dead dad, the actor locates a melancholic charm he hasn’t exhibited since the original run of Arrested Development. As This Is Where I Leave You demonstrates, a great cast is a terrible thing to waste.