Families come together to celebrate or grieve. By Hollywood’s reckoning, grieving is by far the funnier situation.
The latest example is the amusing “This Is Where I Leave You,” in which four siblings return to their Midwestern hometown to bury their father.
Mother Altman (Jane Fonda) informs them that Dad wanted everyone to sit shiva for him. Which is odd, because though born Jewish, he was an atheist.
Anyway, now the kids, their spouses, significant others, and family friends are locked into a week of quiet contemplation. No work, no phone calls, no distractions from the memory of a life well lived.
“It’s gonna be hard,” Mom says in a spectacular display of understatement. “It’s gonna be uncomfortable. You’re going to get on each other’s nerves.”
Judd (Jason Bateman) is a New York radio producer who just found his wife (“Recitfy’s” Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock jock boss (Dax Shepard). He explains her absence by telling everyone she’s at home with a bad back.
Wendy (Tina Fey) is saddled with a work-obsessed hubby (Aaron Lazar) who won’t get off the cell phone long enough to give her the time of day. She’s also dealing with a two year old going through an anal phase.
Paul (Cory Stoll), who still operates the family’s sporting goods store, has been trying for months to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. By now he’s pretty sick of sex.
And baby-of-the-family Phillip (“Girls’” Adam Driver), an irrepressible/irresponsible wiseass, shows up with his new squeeze, a ridiculously hot lady lawyer (Connie Britton) 20 years his senior.
There is the usual sibling brawling, the airing of grievances and resentments, the uncovering of secrets (revealed with all the delicacy of a spa technician ripping off a Brazilian wax).
Bobbing along the periphery of this familial stew is the neighbor lady (Debra Monk), her son (Timothy Olyphant), who was Wendy’s teen love before suffering a brain injury that left him in a perpetual twilight state of adolescence, and the local rabbi (Ben Schwartz), who grew up an ex officio member of the Altman clan and who is still referred to by his old nickname: Boner.
Most important for Judd, who quickly becomes the film’s central figure, is Penny (Rose Byrne), a pretty chatterbox who adored him back in the day and might just be the thing to get him out of his funk.
“This is Where I Leave You” was adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his novel, and narratively it is painfully predictable. First there’s a screamingly funny scene, then one that lays out one of the big conflicts or problems experienced by one of the characters. Repeat repeatedly.
Some of these issues might be taken seriously in another film, but Tropper’s heart is obviously in the yuks, not the soul searching. He inserts running gags about the absurd silicon beefup that has turned Mom Altman into a septugenarian Playboy bunny and the young nephew who is all too enthusiastic about sharing his potty training triumphs with the rest of the clan.
Director Shawn Levy — whose forte is insubstantial material along the lines of the “Night at the Museum” series, “Date Night” and “The Internship” — hasn’t got the gravitas to make this film’s “serious” moments much more than perfunctory.
Happily, we’re not here to be moved but to guffaw, and Levy has put together such an impressive comedic cast that the chortles keep coming.
At the top of the list is Bateman who continues to amaze — nobody in the biz can match his exquisite comic timing and hangdog self-effacement. Fey — well, we all know how solid she is. And Fonda does well as the manipulative mother.
If I have a major complaint it’s that there’s a surfeit of riches here. Britton, for instance, hardly gets any screen time, a situation which, if not criminal, should be.