I hate to be the one to break the news, but Tina Fey does not do poignancy. The ersatz Sarah Palin is totally out of her wheelhouse in the new dramedy, “This Is Where I Leave You.”
Which leaves the burden of carrying the entire reconstituted dysfunctional family reunion on the back of the capable (see sidebar) Jason Bateman.
The “Arrested Development” star’s exaggerated wry delivery can elicit laughs from the most innocuous dialog (“Come-on!”) and his natural underplaying of roles is perennially fresh.
Bateman is the central character, uttering the film’s title at his unfaithful wife before traveling to his boyhood town after the death of his father. Under the specious premise of sitting Shiva, that is, mourning for seven days, mother Jane Fonda effectively grounds Bateman and siblings Fey, Adam Driver (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Corey Stoll (“Midnight in Paris”).
Everyone brings their baggage, of course, both literally and metaphorically. Fey carries a torch for the neighbor injured in an accident. Stoll is the underappreciated eldest who stayed behind to run the family business. Slacker Driver calculates the business might just be his next meal ticket. Remarkably, everyone shines, rare with such a large ensemble.
Unfortunately, the plot holds few surprises. Even Fonda’s big reveal doesn’t come as much of a shock, though it is clearly what the filmmakers were going for. This one relies on character development and arc: Bateman’s feeling of betrayal yield to his responsibility which conflicts with the rekindling of a teen romance. Fey struggles with a disengaged husband. Stoll and wife Kathryn Hahn are desperate for fertility. And, Driver needs some traction in life. Through it all, Fonda is cool and collected. Ironically grief, the reason they’ve all convened, is practically nonexistent.
Humor and emotion are well-balanced, Bateman deserving credit for both. But some of the biggest laughs come from the interaction between the sons and their childhood friend, now the family rabbi. The play between them has a genuine feel.
Friends and siblings coming together ostensibly for another purpose but instead addressing unresolved issues that have been growth barriers is a common theme in movies. Two of the better ones are Lawrence Kasdan’s homage to the ’60s, “The Big Chill,” and the tragically underrated “Coupe de Ville,” which starred Daniel Stern and Alan Arkin. Adam Sandler’s contribution to the genre was “Grown Ups.”
This one falls somewhere in between. Solid, but unrealized potential.