"This is Where I Leave You" (R) *** (out of four)
You'll want to stay for the duration of "This is Where I Leave You," a familiar-feeling yet entertaining dysfunctional family comedy featuring a talented cast led by Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda.
Bateman plays Judd Altman, the producer of a popular radio show whose career comes to a screeching halt when he finds his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer) in bed with the show's host (Dax Shepard). Since the host is also his boss, Judd promptly leaves his wife and his job only to get more bad news: his somewhat estranged father has died.
Even though Judd's Jewish father didn't practice Judaism, his dying wish was for his widow, Hillary (Fonda) to summon all four of their grown-up kids to sit Shiva, a Jewish tradition of mourning that lasts seven days. It allows Hillary to keep all her kids under the same roof for a week, but her hope of her dysfunctional kids reconciling soon becomes complicated by grudges involving ex-girlfriends, strained marriages and Judd's dilemma over what to do with his wife's cheating ways.
While "This is Where I Leave You" is essentially an ensemble comedy, Bateman is really the lead of the film, as he finds himself at the crossroads of life-changing events while getting mixed up in the travails of his siblings. Holding down the fort with nice blend of humor and heart, Bateman is solid throughout the film, as are Fey and Fonda, who both turn in strong enough supporting performances to make you forget about the personal politics off-screen that both are known for.
Even though the movie falls into formulaic traps (this isn't the first dysfunctional family comedy, and it certainly won't be the last), director Shawn Levy brings a steady hand to "This is Where I Leave You," drumming up enough laughs from the entire cast, and allowing enough time for each of the film's supporting characters to strut their stuff. Rose Byrne gives a winning performance as a hometown girl who never quite got over her love for Judd in their high school days; while Timothy Olyphant brings a nice amount of presence as a neighbor who is dealing with the lasting effects of a traumatic brain injury.
Also standing out are rising stars Corey Stoll ("House of Cards") as the neurotic oldest brother locked into a fertility schedule with his wife (the always funny Kathryn Hahn) – who happens an exgirlfriend of Judd's; and Driver, the "Girls" co-star (and villain in the upcoming "Star Wars" film), who plays the irresponsible youngest brother who thinks he's on the right path with his psychologist girlfriend (Connie Britton).
Despite its flaws, when the week is done, "This is Where I Leave You" works. Through a couple of sex scenes and flurry of F-bombs, the film dutifully earns its R rating, yet it does so by not stooping to gross-out comedy levels. It has a fine mix of comedy and poignancy, with a lot of relatable moments for its audience in-between.
"A Walk Among the Tombstones" (R) *** (out of four)
Liam Neeson is back and kicking butt with extreme prejudice with "A Walk Among the Tombstones," but the film is far from being a third chapter in his "Taken" series. Instead, Neeson walks much more softly but carries a big stick, using his brain more than his impulses and only inflicting damage when he needs to.
"A Walk Among the Tombstones" starts in 1991 with police Detective Matthew Scudder (Neeson) beginning his daily ritual with shots of whiskey in a bar, when a band of thugs shoot the bartender and are quickly gunned down by Scudder in the street. Picking up eight years later, Scudder remains haunted by the event, and is trying to make amends at AA meetings.
Having quit the force after the event, Scudder makes his living as an unlicensed private detective, giving him the ability to take on jobs for dirty people who can't afford to get law enforcement involved. Scudder's latest job is for drug trafficker Kenny Kristo ("Downton Abbey's" Dan Stevens), who wants the men responsible for kidnapping and killing his wife. But as soon as Scudder starts digging into the case, he discovers a pattern by a twisted duo who have list of drug kingpins that they're targeting, and even ransom money won't stop their reign of terror.
Neeson brings tons of charisma to his character in "A Walk Among the Tombstones," and ably carries the film on his shoulders despite his largely unknown, but very capable supporting cast. And while Neeson brings a sort of Dirty Harry-sort of "don't mess with me" edge to the character, he's clearly taken a step away from reputation he's earned as the star of the "Taken" films.
True, while there's action, shooting and butt-kicking violence in "A Walk Among the Tombstones," writer-director Scott Frank, the scribe of such gems as "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight" and "Minority Report," is clearly more concerned in developing characters and building intensity instead of putting Neeson in another hyper-kinetic thriller. It's more of a slow-burn, intense film like "The Drop," but unfortunately, without the big twist. The movie keeps you hanging until the final act, when it goes down a conventional path that can only result in one outcome.
While the proceedings are mostly serious, there are a few laughs in "A Walk Among the Tombstones," including one from Neeson's teen co-star, Brian "Astro" Bradley. A homeless teen who dreams of being a detective, Bradley's timing is spot on when delivering a funny line about former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Maybe it won't be as funny to movie viewers outside Minnesota, but given the climate surrounding the team these days, any laugh about the purple is a welcome.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.