For years, people have been telling me to read Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You (2009), a comic novel about a dysfunctional Westchester family whose secrets and lies and disappointments all come out during a week in which its members gather to mourn the passing of the patriarch.
So, because I knew a film version with a wonderful cast was imminent, I finally read it. And I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Tropper’s book struck me as almost entirely false, broadly farcical in a way a realistic novel should not be and drippingly sentimental in a way a broad farce should not be. Even its strength—Tropper has a Neil Simon way with a punchline—is a weakness, because Tropper is indiscriminate. Every single character is a Borscht Belt quipster, even a man with a severe brain injury, and so even the good putdowns and one-liners come to seem forced and acrid.
Tropper’s inspiration was not older novels but rather older movies, in particular the creamy and memorable comedy-dramas from three decades ago. And so it is with the movie, written by Tropper and directed by Shawn Levy. It’s so 1980s you might be surprised that its headline performer, Tina Fey, isn’t wearing shoulder pads and an Alcott and Andrews suit. The set-up and ensemble cast of characters are a straight lift from The Big Chill (1983). The music, by the usually great Michael Giacchino (Up and Lost), seems designed explicitly to evoke the wistful Terms of Endearment score by Michael Gore. Even Jane Fonda is on hand in one of her few major roles since the 1980s—and she looks great (which only proves that evil pays).
But where it really evokes the 1980s is in its reliance not on movie clichés but rather a very specific old-fashioned sitcom trope. It’s called the “MOS,” which is shorthand for “moment of sentiment” (in its bowdlerized form; in fact, the “s” stands for a scatological word). The MOS is that moment at the end of Full House or The Facts of Life, or any other such show, in which the characters sit down together and have an earnest moment professing their common love and caring and needing and sharing. A hug is exchanged. The laugh track says “awww.” Then there’s a bad groaner of a joke, and the credits roll.
This Is Where I Leave You has an MOS every 10 minutes. Mostly, they involve Judd (Jason Bateman), our protagonist. The movie opens with him finding his wife in bed with his boss, so he loses his marriage and his job in one fell swoop. (At least the film jettisons the bit in the book where Judd shoves his wife’s birthday cake up his boss’s patootie, and a candle sets the guy’s scrotum on fire. Ha ha.) As the movie proceeds, Judd has an MOS with his mother (Fonda), then with his sister (Fey), then with a girl in town (Rose Byrne), then with his ex-wife (Abigail Spencer), then with his ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) who’s married to his brother (Corey Stoll), then with his ne’er-do-well brother’s fiancée (Connie Britton), and finally with his ne’er-do-well brother (Adam Driver).
But he’s not the only one. Tina Fey has one with the brain-injured next-door neighbor, who was her high school boyfriend. Jane Fonda has one with the man’s widowed mother—who, it turns out, is her lover (and don’t worry, Fonda’s husband knew and approved because he wanted her to be happy). By the time the movie was over, I was worried the cast was going to come out of the screen and hug me.
The meretricious and annoying nonsense only abates when Fey delivers a zinger in her crisp fashion—and when Adam Driver is on screen. Driver came out of nowhere a few years ago when he began burning a hole through the screen as Lena Dunham’s animalistic actor-boyfriend on the HBO show Girls. Here, he works miracles with every line and every bit of business, finding an unexpected depth and heart to his character the others could desperately use.
This Is Where I Leave You follows the arc of a shiva, the seven-day Jewish mourning period. By the time it was over, I felt like I had been in mourning for seven days.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.