Saturday, September 20, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You; My take on the movie starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda


If you think about it, a story, be it a book or a movie, that takes place in and around a funeral is going to be fraught with emotion. Put a group of people together when someone important to them dies and things are bound to go a little haywire. Love them or hate them, the situation illicits mixed emotions, everyone's feelings are scratch-the-surface raw. What better way to get your characters at their most revealing than to place them in this very specific setting? Certainly not at a wedding where everyone is on their best smiling behavior, beaming congratulations all over the place, wanting to believe the bride and groom will live happily ever after, dammit. Nope. If you want raw emotion and high drama, characters at the height of being themselves, bring on a funeral. Especially a funeral that reunites people who've been living quite separate lives from each other. When it works, it's terrific, vis a vis The Big Chill. When it doesn't we just shake our heads sadly like something died. Remember Elizabethtown with Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst? 



This Is Where I Leave You worked for me. I found myself tearing up within the first few minutes of the film and was wet-eyed throughout much of the movie. It wasn't perfect but I laughed, I cried, that old saw, which is very much how I felt when I read Jonathan Tropper's beautiful and bitingly funny book. Is the book better? The book is almost always better. But Tropper himself wrote the screenplay which is fairly faithful to the spirit of the book, if not all the minor notes. The film stars Jason Bateman, well cast as Judd Altman (Foxman in the novel) a man who learns his father has died almost on the heels of discovering his wife has betrayed him with his boss. (Tropper readers may remember this is a slight change in timing from the book.) Returning home for the seven day Jewish mourning period at the request of his mother, (Jane Fonda) Judd is forced to spend time in close proximity with his brothers Phillip and Paul (Adam Driver and Corey Stoll) and sister Wendy (Fey) "sitting Shiva".

It's that family dynamic that I found most interesting; the love/hate relationship we all have with our relatives. The people who know us best know just what buttons to push, and for some reason, love to jab at them. We can't help digging at them, extracting payment for that time we got punished for their transgressions, punishing them because we secretly know mom and dad always loved them best.  



Judd, our protagonist, is the middle son; until now he's had it all together, everything has worked out pretty much as he planned, smooth as silk. Until it doesn't and he falls apart. Paul (Corey Stoll) is the eldest brother, stoic and self-sacrificing, full of resentment. He's the one who's stayed in the hometown, holding down the family's business. Phillip (Adam Driver) is the baby, the spoiled brat, the pouer aeternus, the guy with the Peter Pan complex who refuses to grow up. Wendy, (intentional?) played by Tina Fey, is the big sister who practically raised him while Mom was busy being a famous child-rearing expert and author and dad was busy with the store. Completely irresponsible and entitled, Phillip acts out, walks all over everybody including the older woman (Connie Britton) he's 'engaged to be engaged' to. It's a family full of the walking wounded, not unlike many of our own families. Imagine if when people asked "How's the family?" we replied "All f%#ked up, just like yours." 

I thought Bateman was fine as Judd; he comes off as a likable, sympathetic character. Bateman is clearly at ease with comedy - the trailers before the movie included one for Horrible Bosses II - but he was natural and comfortable with the serious moments too. That's important as the entire story is told from his point of view and while this wasn't a stretch for his abilities I found him watchable and believable. In the novel,Tropper gives Judd's character the insights that made us laugh with recognition, cry at their pathos. I do wish Tropper the screenwriter had left more of that in the film; Bateman could have handled that delicate balance. Instead director Shawn Levy veered more toward the comic, sometimes sacrificing the nuance that made the book such a magical punch in the gut.

There are great comic moments though, between Judd and his mother and siblings. The idea of the matriarch Hilary having her breasts surgically enhanced is milked for laughs but Fonda maintains her dignity, playing it seriously. In her mid-seventies, she looks in great shape - the breasts are fake - regal in the part of the pragmatic widow who loves to share details of her sex life with the deceased Mort, knows life is too short not to go for what makes you happy. And boy does she go for it! Adam Driver (Girls) was his weird and wonderful self as the entitled Phillip while Connie Britton shone as the older woman coming to grips with the fact that he's not ready, maybe won't ever be ready, to grow up.


Tina Fey is almost always funny, I liked her best though not when she was snarking but when she let her vulnerability show allowing the too few interactions she shares with Horry (Timothy Olyphant) to be tender and filled with pathos. Like her character, I found myself wishing things could have worked out differently. 

Corey Stoll is such a fine actor, he was probably wasted as Paul although nobody rages better and I'm hoping he has more time to strut his dramatic stuff in the upcoming Dark Places (reading that one now). Katherine Hahn as Paul's desperate to get pregnant wife, Abigail Spencer as Judd's cheating wife, Dax Shepard as Judd's boss all handled their moments well. Which brings me to Rose Byrne as Penny, Judd's high school crush who conveniently pops up time and again, unrealistic even in what is supposed to be a fairly small town. I wasn't crazy about the way she's portrayed in the trailer, unfortunately the film treads much the same water; her character lacks a filter but that doesn't mean the performance should lack subtlety. Even while trying for a more open-ended ending Levy's direction and Tropper's script leave us with the rom-com conceit that this girl may be the answer to Judd's dreams. The whole at long last love notion. 

I can't help but wonder if director Shawn Levy had dared to take a little more time - it was just one hour and forty-three minutes and could have been stretched to two hours - whether we could have had a bit more exploration of the themes of healing and self-discovery the book so adroitly delivered. It's tough having read Tropper's novel and having loved the characters, how much does that knowledge and affection color my response as an audience member? 

All in all not quite the exquisite, evocative and hilarious revelations of Tropper's novel but a fine and entertaining movie if you take it on its own terms.






1 comment:

  1. Okay, I didn't know it was a book by Jonathan Tropper which would have prejudiced me against it, but I really enjoyed the movie. I found a lot to laugh at, it didn't really make me sad. I thought Tina Fey's weakest moments were when she was supposed to tear up, but overall, I loved it.

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