The new seriocomedy This Is Where I Leave You is packed to the rafters with insufferable characters, and the youngest of these offenders is a small tyke who's always shown sitting on his portable toilet trying to poop. This leads to the sort of bodily-function gags that are always a telltale sign of screenwriter desperation, but one moment stands apart with its brutal honesty.
After proudly doing his duty -- or should that be doody? -- the kid flings said contraption, contents and all, at one of the grownups. This, in a nutshell, defines This Is Where I Leave You, a wretched film that spends 104 minutes gleefully hurling crap at audience members.
This is one of those works programmed to make audiences alternately laugh and cry -- and since nothing is too shameless for this film, one character even instructs another to "laugh or cry" ... twice.
But it's been many a moon since ace directors Robert Benton and James L. Brooks masterfully engaged viewers' seesaw emotions with, respectively, Kramer vs. Kramer and Terms of Endearment, and so we end up with the misfortune of having Shawn Levy as our guide.
Levy was responsible for helming dreadful remakes of Cheaper By the Dozen and The Pink Panther (not to mention those Night at the Museum drudgeries), so film fans might be forgiven for not picturing him as the go-to guy for this sort of delicate balancing act between humor and heartbreak.
At any rate, he's probably not the main culprit; that's likely to be scripter Jonathan Tropper, adapting his own novel. I haven't read Tropper's book, but I'd like to think that it has to be better than this cinematic version, and that Tropper was forced to alter his own source material to hit all the right moviegoing demographics.
Jason Bateman handles the leading role of Judd Altman, who learns that his father has died around the same time he also learns that his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) has been sleeping with his boss Wade (Dax Shepard), the obnoxious host of a he-man radio show.
And how does Judd discover his wife's infidelity? By coming home early on her birthday and finding the pair in bed together. The fact that a wife might not think that her husband just might decide to surprise her on her birthday is the sort of dunderheaded plot idiocy that is repeated throughout this film. Judd returns home for his pop's funeral. There, he and his siblings -- happy mother but unhappy wife Wendy (Tina Fey), obnoxious man-child Phillip (Adam Driver) and nondescript entity Paul (Corey Stoll) -- are basically forced by their eccentric mom Hillary (Jane Fonda) to hang around the house for a whole week.
Other characters are bussed in at a rapid clip: Paul's wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) fumes because she wants a baby; Wendy's former boyfriend Horry (Timothy Olyphant, sporting a hideous haircut that's banned in 16 states) doesn't let his head injury stop him from making wry asides; hometown girl Penny (Rose Byrne) still nurses a high school crush on Judd; and Rabbi Grodner (Ben Schwartz) is upset that everyone refers to him as "Boner" (don't ask, don't tell).
This Is Where I Leave You clearly isn't lacking in star power, although it's depressing to see so many fine talents cast adrift in such a puerile exercise. Bateman and Driver are playing to their strengths, so they coast by, and Connie Britton nabs a few strong scenes as Phillip's infinitely more mature girlfriend.
But Fey, one of our best and brightest comediennes, has to work hard to make something out of her flailing character, and while it would be nice to say it's great to see Fonda on the screen again, the truth is that her comeback (begun in 2005 after a 15-year absence) has mainly consisted of playing irritating matriarchs in duds like Monster-in-Law, Georgia Rule and now this. When the story isn't busy stacking the predictable deck against its hapless characters (as one example, because Judd is shown messing with a faulty fuse box, it's a given he'll be zapped by it later in the film), it's managing to fail in even small throwaway details.
Three dimwitted dude-bros who worship Wade and his misogynistic radio show side with Judd when they learn that Wade's been sleeping with his wife, when in reality they would only admire Wade even more for his unsavory actions ("Dude scored!").
One character (Debra Monk's Linda) is introduced so clumsily that it takes forever to ascertain whether she's a friend or family member. And when Judd tells another woman, "You really love your husband," he must be conveniently ignoring the fact that she crawled into his bed earlier in the week.
Or maybe Judd was simply making a mockery of Love Story's famous catchphrase, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." That's understandable; for This Is Where I Leave You, it can easily be modified to read, "Love means never having to say you're sorry for dragging your significant other to this debacle."