Well, if a movie comes off as well as Warner Bros.’ R-rated comedy “This is Where I Leave You,” Hollywood should order many more. When done right, it’s a great set-up for farcical ribaldry and highly charged conflict. But it’s really not that easy.
Getting it right are Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) and screenwriter Jonathan Tropper, adapting his own best-selling novel. They throw multiple subplots, thorny characters and family skeletons into a funeral gathering to fine comic results.
The movie does revel in potty-mouth dialogue and frequent conversations about sexual activities, many of this coming from the family matriarch played by Jane Fonda. Yet she is a good enough pro to make this feel natural rather than forced.
Unlike some ensemble pieces this one has a protagonist through whose eyes you witness a family debacle. This would be New York radio producer Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), who begins the movie by discovering his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) has been unfaithful to him for, oh, about a year or so.
Moving out of his trendy Manhattan digs, he files for divorce and then learns his dad has died. He heads for the family homestead in upstate New York, thereby forcing him to re-connect with a family he probably wishes didn’t exist.
Worse, their mother Hilary (Fonda) insists that their father’s dying wish was for the entire family to sit shiva for seven days. An entirely unlikely final wish for a non-observant Jew and professed atheist, but this forces the disgruntled siblings to live under the same roof for the first time in seemingly forever.
Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) continually goads Judd to tell their mother about his impending divorce, a subject he adamantly wishes to avoid. Judd actually gets along with Wendy more than anyone else but he bristles at her know-it-all attitude, which is not unlike their mother’s.
Brother Paul (Corey Stoll), who manages the family business, a sporting goods store, worries as much about how that business will now get divided up as he does about trying to impregnate his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn).
For he worries for a good reason as the family black sheep and youngest brother, the completely irresponsible Phillip (Adam Driver), is clearly angling for a piece of the action — or at least a job.
Phillip astonishes everyone by showing up with a fabulous yet much older “fiancée” (Connie Britton), a cougar who clearly lost her head as well as her heart in falling for an emotionally needy man-child.
Of course, you need a few old flames to ignite farcical fires so for Judd that would be ice-skater Penny (Rose Byrne), his old sweetheart who never left the town when the other high schoolers did. For Wendy it’s Harry (Timothy Olyphant), a man with memory loss sustained in a car accident, the particulars of which the film never makes clear.
Best-selling novelist Jonathan Tropper, adapting his own novel, does a fine job juggling the multiple subplots while ushering in surprises such as Judd’s estranged wife showing up with alarming news and one involving mom at the end that feels highly unlikely.
These complications and surprises deepen your understanding of the characters and add dramatic heft to the comedy. While their idiosyncrasies are much exaggerated, none of these personalities are cartoonish or overly broad.
They are, in other words, reasonably well adjusted — other than Phillip, of course. They become devastatingly dysfunctional only when together.
What their home life must have been like eons before, back when mom, a child psychologist of all things, was writing the best-selling book that made her famous and the children hugely embarrassed, is hard to imagine.
Good comedy actually lies in characters suffering — only viewed from the outside. As Mark Twain once remarked, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
Everyone in “TWILY” is at wit’s end, depressed, anxious or suffering greatly. But the view taken in Tropper’s astute script is extremely funny. The follies and foibles of this family resonate well since one recognizes the plausible, real-life dilemmas these characters face.
The key challenge belongs to Bateman’s Judd. A methodical, disciplined man, he avoids risks and impetuosity. The circumstances behind his wife’s infidelity and a marriage gone south when he wasn’t looking are more grounded in reality than in most Hollywood comedies.
The couple comes by its grief the old-fashioned way — by failures in communication and affection. The boyfriend was a symptom, not a cause.
And so it goes throughout the subplots as everyone shares a role in his or her victimhood. Levy and Tropper gradually draw these back stories out as the comedy evolves.
Not that there aren’t a number of solid running gags and a baby with his trainer-toilet for low-brow laughs. Not to mention mom parading her surgically enhanced breasts in front of her chagrined children.
Yes, humor high and low infiltrates “TWILY,” making the film among the more astute R-rated Hollywood comedies in a long while.
Opens: September 19, 2014 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Spring Creek, 21 Laps
Cast: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, Ben Schwartz
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenwriter: Jonathan Tropper
Based on the novel by: Jonathan Tropper
Producers: Paula Weinstein, Shawn Levy, Jeffrey Levine
Executive producers: Mary McLaglen, Jonathan Tropper, James Packer, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Ford Wheeler
Music: Michael Giacchino
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editor: Dean Zimmerman
R rating, 104 minutes