A modest proposal, before diving into the rest of the muddled, sporadically appealing This Is Where I Leave You: Adam Driver should read all the lines, in all the movies. Just all of them.
There are many ways to know when you're in the presence of a true scene-stealing wizard. Usually it happens when a minor character appears in a story, and you can't help but wish that you were watching a movie just about that character instead. This Is Where I Leave You is structured mostly as an ensemble piece, with approximately a dozen characters getting significant story points, yet there was scarcely a moment during its 103 minutes when I wasn't hoping it would turn to Driver, just to see what kind of crazy-ass spin he would put on every possible snippet of dialogue.
Unfortunately, it's focused mostly on Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a simple guy whose marriage is falling apart just as he receives the call that his father has passed away. So off he heads to the family home in upstate New York for the funeral, and to learn from his mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), that Dad had one last request: the entire family should sit shiva for the full traditional seven days. That means an often-contentious week for Judd, stuck in the same house with Mom, his older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) and youngest brother Phillip (Driver), a perpetual screw-up.
Adapting his own novel, screenwriter Jonathan Tropper packs an entire soap-opera season's worth of subplots into this grieving gathering. Wendy has two kids with a workaholic jerk — we know he's a workaholic jerk because he's always on his cellphone and yelling at his kids and whatnot — while still pining for her college sweetheart (Timothy Olyphant). Paul and his wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn), are unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant — and Alice is Judd's ex-girlfriend, for reasons that will make farcical sense later. Phillip springs it on the family that he's engaged to the older woman (Connie Britton) who used to be his therapist. And then there's all of Judd's drama with his estranged wife (Abigail Spencer) and the hometown girl (Rose Byrne) who still seems to carry a torch for him.
That's an awful lot of character baggage for one movie to try to carry, usually requiring approximately three scenes for any given arc to be introduced, complicated and resolved. As if that doesn't make it hard enough to find resonant material, Tropper and director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) have to squeeze in several attempts at big comedic set pieces that strain harder for wackiness every time the volume gets raised. Were you not laughing hard enough when the toddler hurls his poop-filled potty around the room? Just wait until the baby monitor catches Paul and Alice in an upstairs bedroom trying to conceive, or when various Altman siblings start wrestling one another in a living room or front yard. August: Osage County starts to feel like a quiet, restrained portrait of familial dysfunction by comparison.
Yet somehow — if only by sheer will power of the talented actors — This Is Where I Leave You still sometimes finds honest moments in complex family relationships. Bateman and Fey share lovely scenes that capture the closer connection between them than the other Altman kids, while Paul's frustrations with the much younger Phillip capture a dynamic between them that's more paternal than fraternal. Whenever the movie takes a second to stop its frantic attempts at hilarity or moving someone's story along, it can be quite charming.
And then there's Driver — best known from HBO's Girls, or as the "Uh-oh!" backup singer from Inside Llewyn Davis — who's turning into one of the most oddly magnetic screen presences in years. His gangly physicality is unique enough, but it's hard to imagine someone who can take something as simple as answering the phone with a "Heeeeyyyyy" and turn it into a complete story about his character, or inspire crazy bursts of laughter with a line like "Touché, pussycat."
It's a completely distinctive spin on the familiar character of the black-sheep son, and provides a much-needed focus to the chaos of This Is Where I Leave You: Whatever's happening at any given moment, Driver might be just around the corner.♦