In theaters Friday, Sept. 19
2 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
There's an early scene in this dramedy in which Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver sit in stony silence along a row of chairs in their suburban family home. In that brief moment, all you can do is marvel at the impressive array of talent in one frame. An Oscar winner! Emmy winners and nominees! A Juilliard grad! Then, within minutes, a young boy enters the room and throws his poop at them.
Aaaaaaaand we're already reduced to toilet humor.
The Altmans have gathered together under strict orders: Dad has just passed, and his last wish, per his wife (Fonda), was for his four adult kids to observe the traditional seven-day Jewish mourning period under one roof. "You're all grounded!" Fonda admonishes to her brood. You're not wrong for thinking this set-up echoes 2013's August: Osage County. Except there's no incest here to speak of.
Not that this family doesn't have its special set of issues. At the outset, Bateman, playing a hotshot NYC radio show producer, learns that his wife is sleeping with his slimy boss-friend (Dax Shepard). And she's pregnant. He confides this secret only to his high-strung sister (Fey), who's grappling with her own jerk of a spouse. But wait, there's more! A lot more. Too much more.
Despite the appealing presence of four dysfunctional siblings and an overbearing matriarch, supporting characters are stuffed into virtually every room of the house. Connie Britton is wasted in a forgettable role of Driver's therapist girlfriend. (Even with professional credentials, she's the last to realize that her love is an aimless womanizer.) As Stoll's infertility-plagued wife, Kathryn Hahn embarrasses herself in a scene by climbing into bed with Bateman and begging him to father her baby. Rose Byrne — so comedically resourceful in Neighbors — has even less to do as the stock blue-collar hometown girl. She and Bateman catch up on old times in their first scene together, and audiences will correctly surmise that these two will soon hook it up. Not because they sizzle together; the script is just that predictable.
Oh, and let's not forget about the slow-witted neighbor (Timothy Olyphant). On second thought…
And yet the crises are rarely resolved in a genuine or affecting way. Every cozy depiction of sibling bonding — especially between Bateman and Fey — leads to contrived hijinks. It's as if director Shawn Levy (he of the Night at the Museum flicks) just couldn't complete an insightful or sharp thought without throwing in a sitcom-y exclamation point. One particularly wincing instance? The three brothers sneak out of synagogue services to smoke pot in a Hebrew school classroom. Fine, great, ha. Roll with it. But then they inadvertently set off the fire alarm and sprinklers. And that's before one character breaks up a fight by coming out of the closet.
The terrific cast can't always handle the jarring tonal shifts. (Fey in particular looks uncomfortable crying on cue.) But in the family's most natural moments, their freewheeling chemistry — think bantering on the roof and drinking back beers in a bar — shines through. They must be a blast at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
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