“Do we believe in hell?” daughter Wendy (Tina Fey) asks her mother Hilary Altman (Jane Fonda) at one point in Shawn Levy’s “This Is Where I Leave You.” The question goes unanswered, but viewers sitting through the movie might by that point feel that if not in Hades, they’re certainly in purgatory. Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own novel, it’s one of those awful family reunion tales where emotional scars are opened, old secrets are bared, domestic rivalries are resurrected and, finally, hugs and kisses occur all around. Treading familiar territory with a heavy foot, the picture and its characters grow increasingly irritating as the family squabbles drone on.
The occasion in such movies is often a holiday, but here it’s a funeral that brings Wendy and her three brothers—Judd (Jason Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll) and Philip (Adam Driver)—to the family home for their father’s burial. Also present are Paul’s wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) and Philip’s much older current girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton), who happens also to be his therapist. Conspicuously absent is Judd’s wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer), whom Judd had just left after finding her in bed with his boss, loud-mouth radio talk-show host Wade (Dax Shepard). All are virtually trapped at the place for a full week when Hilary announces that it was her late husband’s final wish—although he was an atheist—that his family should sit shiva for him.
That affords plenty of time for the Altman brood to…well, brood over past disappointments, periodically strike out against one another, and in some cases look for fulfillment with outsiders. Paul, for instance, is still rankled over the fact that Annie was once Judd’s girlfriend—something that childish agitator Philip constantly brings up. Meanwhile Paul and Annie are desperately trying to conceive a child, and their failure will lead Annie to desperate measures. Judd will rekindle an old romance with sweet ice skater Penny (Rose Byrne), though Quinn will eventually show up with a predictable revelation that will further complicate things—and with Wade in tow. Wendy is having problems with her businessman hubby, which leads her to seek comfort in the arms of an old boyfriend, Holly Callen (Timothy Olyphant), who was brain-damaged in an auto accident while they were dating and has since lived across the street with his mother Linda (Debra Monk). Linda, by the way, has a secret with Hilary that’s not revealed until very late in the game, and takes the cake for implausibility in what’s already an overstuffed stew of family troubles. And dragged into the shenanigans all too frequently is the family’s young rabbi (Ben Schwartz), a childhood friend of all the Altman siblings. One of the movie’s most frequently repeated, and painful gags, involves his old nickname—Boner—the intoning of which is often accompanied by a crotch grab. That bit of purported comedy occurs at least as frequently as references to Hilary’s recently augmented breasts, although it would be a tiresome business to count and determine which is relied on more.
If this makes the movie sound like a dish festooned with too many ingredients, it is. And they’re ingredients that frankly don’t mesh. One minute it’s poorly-judged slapstick—poor Judd gets a head wound, almost breaks his back in a fall on the ice and then is nearly electrocuted by his supposedly wonderful father’s lousy wiring system—while at another it descends into the most mawkishly soap-operatic conversation and at still others purports to impart important life lessons for us all. The mixture gets so unpalatable that you’re almost relieved whenever Wendy’s toddler son, who’s in the midst of potty training, shows up periodically to provide some excremental humor. Judd remarks at one point that the kid seems the best adjusted person around; he’s not far off the mark—and that includes Tropper and Levy, who appears to be attempting to show his “serious artist” side by offering us a pale “Parenthood” retread that only proves he’s not even up to the standard of Ron Howard on an off day.
Still, the cast go through their paces with a degree of conviction the material doesn’t deserve. Bateman eschews his usual smarminess in favor of a phlegmatic hangdog expression, and Fey likewise goes darker than usual, without much payoff. By contrast Fonda practically bubbles throughout, and Schwartz plays to the rafters in the picture’s most embarrassing role. The best performances comes from Stoll as the pragmatic son who took over his father’s business and Britton as Philip’s long-suffering older woman; the worst, or at least most annoying, from Driver—who’s being touted as the next big thing but in the larger parts he’s played recently far (in “What If” and this) has demonstrated little more than a talent for frat-boy shtick that’s meant to be boyishly charming but ends up merely abrasive—and Shepard, who seems to be able to play only one thing: obnoxious. (To be fair, Driver was engaging in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”) Everybody else does what’s demanded of them adequately without being particularly inspired. The production values are all slick, with hazily lush images courtesy of cinematographer Terry Stacey and convincingly suburban settings from designer Ford Wheeler. But demerits are due the treacle-filled score by Michael Giacchino which, with its tinkling piano and swooning strings, sounds as though it should be backing a TV pharmaceutical commercial.
Critics always sit through films in their entirety, even the worst ones, hoping against hope that some miracle will happen and they might wind up winners. But viewers who find themselves fidgeting as this one slogs on to its foreordained multi-climax conclusion might well adopt the title as their own and take their leave of it early.