“This Is Where I Leave You” is such a rare bird nowadays — a mid-budget, big-studio ensemble dramedy — that the only real basis for comparison is the television drama. That’s hardly an insult. As the critic David Thomson recently wrote, “Long-form television is the narrative form that has transcended movies as the novel once surpassed cave paintings.” Even if that weren’t so, the setup of Shawn Levy’s new film might seem like an offering from some (utopian) NBC lineup: It’s based in an American suburb. It blends humor, romance, and bathos. And it features an endearingly dysfunctional family with Jason Bateman and Tina Fey at its center, both of whom wisecrack aplenty as they keep their wackier clan members in check.
Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his best-selling novel, it begins as Judd Altman (Bateman) discovers his wife (Abigail Spencer) is sleeping with his radio schlock jock boss (Dax Shepard). While Judd’s still reeling, his father dies, and his mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) declares their whole family must honor the Jewish custom of sitting shivah together for seven days. This leads to an excellent sight gag: the four grown Altman children — Judd, Wendy (Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver) — lined up with Hillary on improbably tiny chairs as their friends and neighbors ply them with carbohydrates galore. (Noodle kugel is a favorite.)
“This Is Where I Leave You” is rife with these sort of quick riffs. It’s no surprise, since Levy is best known for directing the “Night at the Museum” movies, and it’s no problem, since the riffs rarely fall flat. They also provide much-needed comic relief from the Altman’s sourpatch of stories. Hillary, one of those hyper-sex-positive 1970s moms who’s really a well-intended narcissist, is nursing a big secret. Mother-of-two Wendy still pines after her childhood sweetheart (Timothy Olyphant), who’s brain-damaged from a mysterious accident in their past. Paul’s marriage with Judd’s ex, Annie (a sorely under-utilized Kathryn Hahn), may not survive their fertility problems. Phillip, the ne’er-do-well baby of the family, is dating Tracy (Connie Briton), a dead-ringer for Hillary. (Naturally, the two women are both shrinks.) Judd is drowning his pain in a rebound relationship with his daffy high-school sweetheart (Rose Byrne, always on point). Even the local rabbi is part of the mishegoss. Played by Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation”), he’s their childhood bestie, and none of them can seem to remember to forego his old nickname of “Boner.”
There’s no doubt that “This Is Where I Leave You” is a crowd-pleaser. Tropper’s script lays it on just thick enough, with the right balance of wit and melancholy. Levy proves happily deft at negotiating the challenges of an adult comedy; he threads the myriad storylines into something more coherent than ragtag (even if he does rely too heavily on meaningful close-ups). But the real headline is this dream team of contemporary players who know how to bring the funny without scrapping any emotional veracity.
We know we’re in business when the least-known cast member is Stoll, who was the stealth weapon of the first season of the Netflix series “House of Cards.” And Oscars of the past be damned, Fonda is becoming a better actor as she ages; she’s looser in her skin, more willing to set herself up as the butt of a good joke. (Her disruptively conspicuous new breasts may be an obvious joke but it’s still a good one.) Essentially a reactive actor, Bateman is at his best when tamping down the madness of others. He’s right at home here, though the film’s few wrong turns stem from his kneejerk spit-takes.
Fey, on the other hand, leaves her sitcom impulses far behind. For one of the first times on screen, she sheds her nerdy shtick and plays a bad-ass — one who’ll lay a punch, screw a neighbor, even bat her lashes with the flinty power of a screen siren. It’s a pleasure to see her finally take on this mantle. The greatest pleasure is always Driver, though, who is well on his way to becoming the versatile, masculine star that Hollywood has been awaiting for a very long while (sorry, boychiks Clooney and Damon). It’s as if a young Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland had defied medical science and birthed a love child.
In his former life, Driver was a Marine, and he’s still so firmly rooted in his long, lean physicality that he seems incapable of a false note. (The body doesn’t lie, after all.) For example, a potentially sappy moment between Judd and Phillip is grounded out by the hug we really believe he means. But that’s the overall nature of this movie, too. Forget TV. Somewhere in its two hours, “This Is Where I Leave You” morphs into the kind of well-considered, emotionally resonant fare that we should still expect from our multiplexes.
This review was originally published in Word and Film.