Scattered siblings with “issues” gather at their mom’s home to pay homage to a departed patriarch, opening old wounds and new secrets.
Sound like “August: Osage County,” last year’s Oscar-baiting drama? Sure does. Except “This Is Where I Leave You” is actually entertaining.
This buoyant new comedy recruits a cast of A-listers and up-and-comers. And this time the audience cares about their characters: No matter how messed up these folks are, they’re relatable and engaging.
Jason Bateman plays Judd Altman, a by-the-books producer for a radio shock jock (Dax Shepard). After his home life and work life intersect in the most humiliating way, Judd is further floored by the death of his father.
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The Altman kids weren’t raised in a religious household, yet they agree to their Jewish atheist dad’s dying wish to return and sit shivah — seven days of prayer and mourning.
“It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be uncomfortable. And we’re going to get on each other’s nerves,” says brassy mom Hillary (Jane Fonda).
Adding to the discomfort: Hillary is a best-selling psychologist who became famous for detailing her kids’ adolescent tribulations in her book “Cradle and All.” (Wouldn’t that have made a much better movie title than the instantly forgettable “This Is Where I Leave You”?)
Judd may be justifiably depressed, but the rest of his clan have their own problems. Older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is married to Judd’s ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn), and their struggle to get pregnant has put them in an ovulating tailspin.
Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is flanked by potty-training rugrats and an affluent husband who pays more attention to his cellphone. Little brother Phillip (Adam Driver), a reckless stoner, brings an older woman (Connie Britton) as his date … who is also his psychologist. Perhaps she can explain “Oedipus complex” to him.
Even though the children think this shivah shift is ridiculous (Wendy scolds, “Mom, you’re sitting in the same spot we put our Christmas tree”), it forces the Altmans to do something rare: talk with one another.
As Hollywood’s resident specialist at portraying disgraced-yet-smarmy heroes, Bateman (“Identity Thief,” “Bad Words”) anchors the film. Even when saddled with one of cinema’s most cliched scenes — finding the wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with another man — he manages to create an emotionally resonant moment. Later, he extracts humor from simple reactions, as when he is relegated to sleeping in the family’s unfinished basement, littered with life-size cardboard cutouts of Hillary pimping her book.
Bateman can truly sell a defining line like “I’ve spent my entire life playing it safe just to avoid being where I am right now.”
Meanwhile, Fey perfectly embodies the no-nonsense sister who was forced to raise her troublesome brothers when their mom was away. After drifting through mediocre comedies such as “Admission” and “Date Night” (also directed by Shawn Levy), Fey gets to shine with her palpable strength of character rather than her ease with a punch line.
Just as Tracy Letts adapted “Osage” from his own play, Jonathan Tropper revises his 2009 novel for the screen. The family’s last name gets changed from Foxman to Altman, but many of the book’s scathing observations remain intact. Also surviving the adaptation are a few too many characters and subplots. (Timothy Olyphant as Fey’s brain-damaged ex-boyfriend could have been axed altogether.)
“This Is Where I Leave You” offers a big step up for Levy, best known for effects-laden fantasies such as the “Night at the Museum” franchise and last year’s pandering infomercial “The Internship.” He corrals this hefty ensemble and essentially gets out of their way. This is a movie where the characters are more interesting than the plot twists or comedic throwdowns (of which there are plenty).
Spending a week with the Altmans is doubtless more fun for the audience than the family.
‘THIS IS WHERE
I LEAVE YOU’
Rated R | Time: 1:43
ADAM DRIVER IN HYPERDRIVE
Hailed as “one of the oddest, funniest, strangest new faces,” 6-foot-3 Adam Driver is getting noticed. The Juilliard-trained ex-Marine has been playing an urban hedonist on HBO’s “Girls” for three seasons and now co-stars as the immature youngest sibling in “This Is Where I Leave You.”
His biggest role is still a secret, in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: Episode VII” (due in December 2015). “It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Driver told The Associated Press. “But you still have to approach it like any other thing, and J.J. has made it so you can.” More to come:
▪ “Tracks” (opening in some cities Friday; no KC date yet): Driver plays a National Geographic photographer trailing an adventurer (Mia Wasikowska) in the Australian desert.
▪ “While We’re Young”: In Noah Baumbach’s comedy, Driver and Amanda Seyfried are a hipster couple who upend the staid lives of Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts.
▪ “Hungry Hearts”: Saverio Costanzo’s family drama won Driver best actor at the Venice Film Festival.
▪ “Midnight Special”: In Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller, Driver is a government agent hunting down a boy with unique powers.
▪ “Silence”: In this Martin Scorsese passion project, 17th century Jesuits risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan.
| Sharon Hoffmann, The Star