Sitting shiva makes the heart grow fonder (and the libido rage and the repressed grievances runneth over) in “This Is Where I Leave You,” a sprawling ensemble dramedy that starts out like a full-tilt sitcom and gradually migrates to a place of genuine feeling. Repping a concerted effort by “Night at the Museum” and “Cheaper by the Dozen” helmer Shawn Levy to spread his wings beyond the gilded cage of family-friendly tentpoles, this alternately manic and mawkish adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 novel aims for “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Terms of Endearment” territory and ends up somewhere closer to a Semitic “Home for the Holidays” or “August: Osage County.” But a tremendous ensemble cast gives the pic a significant boost, especially when they’re allowed to act rather than merely act out.
Opening wide Sept. 19 following its Toronto Film Festival bow, “This” occupies an increasingly rare space on a major studio’s release slate: a literary adaptation that’s neither tween-centric nor awards bait, but which could generate some modest traction with underserved adult moviegoers before making way for the big guns of fall (beginning with “Gone Girl” two weeks later).
Even the name of its harried protagonist, Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), hints at the movie’s disparate impulses: ribald, Apatow-ian slapstick on the one hand and richly textured group portraiture on the other. Hence an opening act that juxtaposes Judd’s exuberant cuckolding at the hands (and entwined legs) of his wife (Abigail Spencer) and shock-jock radio boss (Dax Shepard) with the news that dear old Dad has lost his battle with an unspecified terminal illness.
From all points the Altmans converge on their sleepy (and very white) Westchester County hometown: eldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll), who worked side-by-side with dad in the family sporting goods business; baby brother Philip (Adam Driver), the obligatory free-spirited stoner lothario, who turns up with his latest romantic conquest — a wealthy middle-aged shrink (Connie Britton) — in tow; and lone sister Wendy (Tina Fey), who appears, grading on a curve, to be the most functional of the lot. Looming large over them all is matriarch Hilary (Jane Fonda), a celebrated child psychologist who didn’t hesitate to include the most intimate details of her children’s lives in a bestselling book. She informs the troops that it was their father’s dying wish to have all his children mourn him according to Jewish custom — no matter that he himself was a professed atheist.
Everyone arrives toting several tons in excess emotional baggage, and it’s obvious from the start that, if the shiva isn’t an outright ruse, it’s certainly a convenient way of keeping these uneasy bedfellows cooped up together until they manage to smooth out their differences. Paul, wouldn’t you just know it, has been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant with wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who dated Judd once upon a time and isn’t beyond asking her ex for an indelicate favor. Elsewhere, unrequited teenage flames burn anew, in the form of the pert ice-skating instructor (Rose Byrne) who still has eyes for Judd, and the literal boy next door (Timothy Olyphant) who suffered a life-altering brain injury in a long-ago car accident that left then-g.f.Wendy unscathed.
The cliche conflicts and character types arrive with such breakneck speed during the film’s first half that you can’t help wondering if anyone involved with “This Is Where I Leave You” had seen Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult,” a movie that took this very sort of you-can’t-go-home-again heart-tugger and turned it savagely on its ear. But around the halfway mark, the movie quits trying quite so hard to make you love it and takes on a more nuanced, lifelike countenance. After setting up so many pat, obvious conflicts, Tropper’s screenplay then works through them in a somewhat less obvious fashion. (The characters actually end up having to make some hard choices.) And if the movie never quite masters the feel of messy, grown-up life, it at least makes a few promising salvos in that direction — when it isn’t dispensing potted wisdom like “Anything can happen. Anything happens all the time.”
The actors help a lot. If most of the principal roles have been cast fairly close to type — especially Bateman as the easily flustered middle child, Fonda as the diva mom with outiszed ego and newly inflated breasts, and Driver as the charming but immature man-child — it’s nevertheless pleasurable to watch pros like these going through the paces. Fonda in particular finds the grace notes in a character that might easily have become another shrill “Monster-in-Law.” But MVP status here belongs to Britton, who has the slightly sad, flinty authority of a woman who’s been around the block a few times, knows exactly what she’s gotten herself into, and doesn’t have the slightest delusion that it will last.
Levy and Tropper deserve credit for keeping the Jewish caricatures to a minimum: Nary a bagel is seen nor an “Oy vey” uttered, though attentive viewers will note a fleeting kugel cameo.