In his 2009 novel This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper included significant passages of stream of consciousness that involved flashbacks about Judd Foxman’s relationships with his older brother Paul, as well as memorable scenes that take place only in Judd’s mind. The difficulty of translating those kinds of things to film seems to have been what compelled Topper to leave them out of his script of the film version. Trouble is, without them the story is simply a clichéd portrayal of another dysfunctional family brought together by a domestic tragedy. And it’s been done much better quite recently—in last year’s August Osage County, for example.
Thus the movie’s premise—four siblings come back to their hometown for their father’s funeral, and their mother reveals that their atheist father’s dying wish was that they perform the Jewish custom of sitting shiva, thus forcing them to interact for seven days in the same house—seems somewhat worn. Not surprisingly, the siblings have issues with one another. The film’s protagonist, Judd Altman (changed from the novel’s “Foxman”), is divorcing his wife, whom he walked in on having sex with his boss in the beginning of the movie, but tells everyone she is not there because of a bulging disc. His sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is married to a stereotyped businessman who is constantly on his cell-phone and gives her no help taking care of her two small children. Older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), who has stayed in town and run their father’s store, is having marital difficulties caused by infertility issues, and the baby of the family, Phillip (Adam Driver) is a hapless screw-up who seems to have gotten lucky by getting a wealthy older woman—his therapist—to fall in love with him. How did these kids’ relationship lives get so messed up? The film gives us one possibility: their mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) is a popular psychologist who made a fortune on her best-selling book Cradle and All, in which she detailed all of her children’s growing pains for the whole world to see. But that is only a small suggestion, and doesn’t come near explaining all that is going on. We are put in the middle of a family “dramedy” (as the blurbs call it) in which there are intimations of weighty events in these characters’ pasts—but they are events we are never made privy to.
This is not to say that there aren’t worthwhile moments in the film. The critical mass of thespian talent in the film prevents it from sinking altogether. Bateman is solid and sympathetic as Judd, even if occasionally one gets the feeling he is channeling his Michael Bluth character from Arrested Development as the only functional member of a dysfunctional family. Fey transcends her comic roots and convincingly plays the frustrated wife who is still in love with her high school sweetheart, Horry (played in a brilliantly understated way by Timothy Olyphant), who lives across the street from her parents’ house and whom she left after an automobile accident damaged his brain so that he still lives with his mother. Fey’s scenes with Bateman are believable and spot-on depictions of adult brother-sister interactions if those siblings are still fairly close. Stoll, memorable for his campy performance as Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, is believable and sympathetic as the solid older brother, and Driver (best known from television’s Girls) is so perfect as the hapless Phillip that it is hard to take your eyes off him.
In addition to Olyphant, some of the other secondary characters’ performances are noteworthy as well: Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) is charming as Judd’s new love interest, and Connie Britton—known chiefly for television roles in Nashville, Friday Night Lights, 24 and American Horror Story—gives a surprisingly sympathetic turn as the therapist in love with her patient.
But Oscar-winner Jane Fonda is given little to do, and what she is given simply seems unbelievable, in particular the strange deus-ex-machina ending she springs on her children, which ends up not really explaining anything at all. And one wonders why, though a mother and a psychologist, she seems almost completely unconcerned about all of her children’s many problems. Nor did I buy the fairly gratuitous scene in which Paul’s wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) slips into bed with Judd.
What caused the rift between the brothers in this story? Why is Phillip’s life so aimless? Most importantly, what was Judd’s relationship with his father? At one point the family members are sharing memories of their father, and Judd can’t come up with a single thing. An accident later in the film reminds him of one incident, but we have no way of knowing why it was significant, or why he can’t remember others. There is simply too much left out of this story.
Nor is the tone of the film consistent. Sure, life has funny as well as sad moments, but this particular “dramedy” seems to have some difficulty deciding what it wants to be, and that is probably the fault of the director. Shawn Levy, best known for films like Night at the Museum and The Internship, at times lets the atmosphere of those movies intrude on this one, so that he seems at times to be directing a sit com and at others a Lifetime movie. There are moments of sincere emotion here as well as moments of sometimes boisterous, sometimes black humor. But I’m not sure how a three-year-old’s throwing feces around the living room, or a scene in which a married couple’s having sex is broadcast via baby monitor to a room full of mourners, is appropriate in any of those categories.
In the end, I can only wish that this film had been better executed, or that I knew more about these characters’ pasts. Maybe I just should have read the book—and maybe you should too. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that my wife liked this film better than I did, and so if you’re like her you might too. In deference to her tastes, I am giving the film two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.