A decade ago, "Arrested Development" accelerated the evolution of the sitcom by light years. The single-camera, location-heavy ensemble comedy is everywhere these days, and there's no question the show was a big inspiration to those that followed it.
Even though not many people watched "Arrested Development" at the time, the series launched or re-launched several careers, with the biggest beneficiary being Jason Bateman. He had washed out in his very early 20s, after "Teen Wolf, Too." But "Arrested Development" showed that Bateman may actually possess the best, purest comic timing of any straight man of his generation. Even in the largely undistinguished film career that has followed his work as Michael Bluth, Bateman has been resolutely good in comedies, proving that it's not just the material.
"This is Where I Leave You" is a case in point. Bateman excels again, playing a retread of his put-upon brother in a dysfunctional family, except that this time he's a bearded put-upon brother in a dysfunctional family. See the difference? And perhaps because this stuff is right in his wheelhouse, Bateman knocks it out of the park.
Reeling after he walks in on his wife sleeping with his boss, Judd Altman (Bateman) is crushed by more bad news: His father has passed away. Dad's dying wish, even though he wasn't Jewish, was that the family observe shiva—a week-long mourning ritual in which the immediate family of the deceased sits in one room for seven days and welcomes visitors into their home. This comedy device works best when there's tension in the family, and boy, do the Altmans have it.
They are a Macy's Thanksgiving Parade of one-note, troubled characters, from the sexually liberated mom (Jane Fonda) to snarky sis Wendy (Tina Fey) to the starched shirt oldest brother (Corey Stoll) to the young black sheep of the family (Adam Driver). In each scene, they fulfill those roles rather ordinarily, and it all orbits Judd, the sane one, the safe one.
While he's in his hometown, Judd meets up with Penny (Rose Byrne), the girl who always had a crush on him in high school. While it would be fun—and infinitely more interesting—to imagine that the movie was dying to tell us that Penny actually murdered Judd's dad or something, what you get out of this sub-plot is exactly what you expect. And it also reduces Rose Byrne to a really basic, forgettable portrayal, which is no small feat.
Speaking of not maximizing your comedic talents: Tina Fey seems to be working toward different types of material. She has marital strife here, pangs of guilt about her old boyfriend, and fears about where her life has gone. If this is a step in a new direction, though, it's still a fairly small one.
A lot of that blame falls on the by-the-numbers script. Nothing happens to the Altmans that their very limited constructions would not allow. There are some other sub-plots that don't work out so well and then lots of scenes where something crazy happens, seemingly all on its own, because this is a movie built around how predetermined character types react to Plot Twist A or B.
Nothing else really reaches out and grabs you, however. There are some good laughs in "This is Where I Leave You," but none worth writing home about. As a very simple exercise in moviemaking, it's an OK time. But it's not built to last.