When we see an actor often enough on-screen, that actor can start to feel like a member of our circle of friends. Soon we're saying, "I want to go to there" like Liz Lemon or reminiscing about the messes Michael Bluth got into.
And when we see a bunch of our actor friends together in a movie, we may jump at the chance to "hang out" with them. Who cares if they're playing different characters from the ones we know and love? We still want to see Jane Fonda pretend to be the mother of Tina Fey, Jason Bateman and Adam Driver from "Girls." We just know their crazy-ass personalities will bleed through.
Then we realize that the ensemble film for which our "friends" have assembled is a snarl of "you'll laugh, you'll cry" family-flick clichés that flat-out fails to exploit what we love about them. And the experience starts to feel less like a hilarious dinner party and more like an interminable family gathering.
The latter is the appropriate subject of This Is Where I Leave You, adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his best-selling novel. The "I" of the title is the paterfamilias of the suburban Altman family, who has succumbed to illness after expressing a last wish: He wants his widow (Fonda) and four grown kids to sit shiva for him. Mom, a celebrity psychologist with daunting new breast implants, is determined to make it happen.
A week of forced family time doesn't suit any of the Altman offspring. Wendy (Fey) is toting two young kids; Paul (Corey Stoll) is desperately trying to impregnate his wife; Phillip (Driver) would rather be partying. And Judd (Bateman) doesn't want to tell his family that he and his picture-perfect wife (Abigail Spencer) split up after he caught her in bed with his boss.
Will all family secrets be public knowledge by the end of the week? Will Judd relinquish his ideal of a "perfect" life and embrace messy reality with the help of a hometown girl (Rose Byrne)? Will there be a scene where the Altmans toke up and bond, a scene where a baby monitor broadcasts baby-making noises, and several reaction shots of a toddler going poopy? Will there be a solemn piano that plinks every time the movie shifts from "wacky" to "serious" mode? Do these even need to be questions?
This isn't the first formulaic or unfunny comedy from director Shawn Levy (The Internship), but it is a notable waste of a game cast. The real problem is the script, which fails to shape the characters into people who feel like family. Instead, they function as gag-making machines (Mom blurts out mortifying details of her kids' sexual histories) or deliver dialogue that sounds like movie-poster taglines ("Love can give you cancer like everything else, but it's still love"). Chock-full of dramatis personae, this movie never lets them settle down and just be.
Bateman's strength as a comic actor is the hostile edge under his waffly likability, but here he's all waffle — a teary, befuddled teddy bear. Fey is equally neutered; only Driver manages to wring some laughs out of his stock character with bizarrely off-key line readings. Phillip and the hot older girlfriend (Connie Britton) he inexplicably scored seem like they might be a blast to hang out with.
If only that were true of the Altmans as a group. In past decades, when a film comedy failed to offer anything but stale laughs and insights, critics routinely compared it to a sitcom. It's a sign of the times that This Is Where I Leave You leaves us nostalgic for the better work these actors have done — in sitcoms. Watching it is like seeing your weird, unruly friends grow up into the dullest people alive.