‘This Is Where I Leave You’ yields amusing slapstick, not much else

Jason Bateman and Rose Byrne share a rare moment of sincerity in "This Is Where I Leave You." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“You’re all grounded!” Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) announces in “This Is Where I Leave You,” released Sept. 19, in the wake of her husband’s death. But when Hillary addresses her middle-aged, incredulous children, little does she know that everyone in the room, save maybe the tottering kid, Cole (Cade Lappin), has his or her own set of life-disrupting problems to bring to the table. It seems like the perfect start to a comedy about a dysfunctional family and their spouses, except that it’s supposed to be both thoughtful and funny, not just one.

Director Shawn Levy’s newest ensemble comedy, “This Is Where I Leave You,” is a slice-of-life drama about a mother and her four children who, after spending years apart, are reunited while sitting shiva — the eight-day mourning process in Judaism — for their  late father. The Altman clan embarks on a soul-searching quest, and is forced to confront its problems together, bringing extended relatives and friends into the mix. Protagonist Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) rekindles his relationship with old flame and high school crush Penny Moore (Rose Bryne), while Judd’s brother, Philip (Adam Driver), works on his rocky relationship with ex-therapist and soon-to-be-fiancé Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton). And Wendy (Tina Fey) encounters her high school boyfriend, Horry (Timothy Olyphant).

The film attempts to magnify domestic problems faced by everyday people, compressing them into a 103-minute movie. The results aren’t so stellar, especially when compared with the novel written by Jonathan Tropper, published in 2009, on which the film was based. At least the movie brings out deeper parts of the story in quick succession.

On the surface, the film is an unconventional drama-comedy that blurs the line between dark content and humor, touching on subjects such as divorce, pregnancy, miscarriage, death and extramarital affairs. The movie’s comedic offerings lie in the wacky ways it portrays these issues. The star-studded cast, combined with the exaggerated details of Tropper’s script and Levy’s skill as a director, manage to dish out an enjoyable slapstick performance — with tidbits involving fake breasts, a zany rabbi, potty training and much more.

But frankly, the movie overcompensates. Levy crowds everything from Tropper’s 352 page novel into the movie, all at once, leaving viewers struggling to understand sudden ups and downs. Viewers might also find the cast too varied and confusing. The amount of screen time each character receives seems disproportionate to their significance in the story and the values Levy tries to convey. The movie feels too hurried, too abstract in some regards and fails to transfer the full experience of the novel to the silver screen.

A line by character Hilary Altman describes the film well: “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be uncomfortable. And we’re going to get on each other’s nerves.” At times the movie is unbearable, especially when emotional transitions happen too quickly. For example, viewers are left hanging when, in a tranquil scene, Judd shares a childhood recollection with Wendy on the family roof, only to have the moment rudely cut short.

Overall, the film is good enough as a sitcom-turned-mediocre-Hollywood-type story. It’s not the actors’ faults; none of them were allowed enough screen time and transition periods to really shine. Viewers will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of story climaxes encountered, simply too much to be digested in the mere 103 minutes allotted to “This is Where I Leave You.”