These are the first words of the book This Is Where I Leave You, spoken by Wendy Foxman. How does she say it? “Offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day. It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy.”
These are not the first words of This Is Where I Leave You the movie, which begins instead with a shot of our protagonist strolling merrily through the streets of New York with some coffee in hand. (Real original, right?) It isn’t until several scenes later that Judd gets a phone call from Wendy (portrayed by Tina Fey in the movie), who says: “Dad’s dead.” How does she say it? Not offhandedly. Not like it’s happened before. She’s crying.
From there, we cut to a funeral for the aforementioned dead dad. It’s a beautiful fall day, and everyone is in proper mourning attire, and there’s some overwrought music from the score announcing this as a Sad Moment. It made me incredibly depressed, but not because I was feeling the loss of the family patriarch.
Because at that moment I realized that someone had seriously fucked up the movie adaptation of a pretty wonderful novel.
This Is Where I Leave You is the inevitable movie version of the well-received 2009 novel by Jonathan Tropper. I just read the book this week, so I was extra-attuned to which elements of the story were kept the same, and which were altered for the big screen. I recognized pretty much every line of dialogue that was taken directly from the book, cocking my brow at those that were added or exchanged, carefully keeping a tally of which changes were for good and which were for evil.
And I know: novels and films are different mediums. They need to be treated as such. A good book adaptation is not necessarily a faithful book adaptation — it’s all about capturing the spirit of the original text, which can mean axing full story threads or killing off supporting characters before we ever meet them on screen. It’s for the greater good. Oftentimes, movie adaptations suffer from trying to be too faithful to the book, cramming in way too much material instead of being true to the theme of the story. It’s a common mistake.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel flummoxed by some of the changes made here. The Foxman clan’s last name switch now makes them the Altman clan, a rather boring choice, and Judd’s cheating wife Jen is now, inexplicably, Quinn. I winced every single time someone mentioned the name “Quinn.” I winced every time we cut to a shot of Judd’s iPhone announcing that Quinn was calling. (It happens a lot.) And every time there was a scene with Quinn Altman, I had the urge to shake her and ask, “Who are you, bitch? And what have you done with Jen Foxman?”The world will never know how I would have reacted to Quinn Altman if I had not read the book, if I had never known Jen Foxman. I know this alteration doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s the kind of thing that makes me want to show up at director Shawn Levy’s house with my copy of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You and throw it at him, shouting, “Did you even read this thing?” (I would not do the same to the screenwriter, because the screenwriter is Jonathan Tropper.) You know how Buffalo Bill in Silence Of The Lambs cuts off pieces of womens’ skin and wears them? This Is Where I Leave You is kind of like that. All the same characters are here, and most of the things that happen are very similar to what occurs in the book, but it’s like a movie wearing the skin of the novel. All the pieces are right, yet what’s underneath is all wrong. The soul is missing.
This Is Where I Leave You is the story of the Foxman — sorry, Altman — family, led by matriarch Hilary (Jane Fonda), a famous (and newly buxom) child psychiatrist who based all of her parenting advice on her experiences with her own children. These children are now, uniformly, a mess: Wendy is a harried mom who married a certifiable asshole after a teen romance went askew; Paul (Corey Stoll) lives in his father’s shadow trying to hold the family business together but can’t start a family of his own because he’s sterile; Phillip (Adam Driver) is the bratty baby of the clan, always getting to trouble; and Judd has discovered his wife Jen — sorry, Quinn — sleeping with his asshole boss Wade (Dax Shepard).
Oh, and as for their father? Dad’s dead.Apparently, dad’s dying wish was for all of his children to sit shiva, even though he was an atheist, which means this group of sparring siblings will need to spend a whole week under the same roof. That leads to a lot of drama, as well as a few old romances rekindled. Paul’s wife Annie (Katherine Hahn) is actually Judd’s ex, and she’s pretty okay with having a baby by any of the Altman brothers; Wendy was once involved with the Altmans’ next door neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who’s still around; and Judd just might hit it off with Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), who always had a thing for him. Because when Rose Byrne is single and has her eye on you, are you seriously thinking of going back to a cheating whore named Quinn? (By the way, if you think the above description of the story sounds complicated, I have only covered about half of it.)
This Is Where I Leave You is a plethora of plots in search of a unifying theme. The book was told from a male’s point-of-view; it mostly shoved Wendy and Hilary to the sidelines and focused on the relationships between the three brothers, Judd’s feelings about his father’s death, as well as Judd’s marital woes, rivalry with his jerky boss, and lust for just about every other woman he encounters whom he is not related by blood to. (The “by blood” is an important distinction, because he actually does sleep with someone he is related to by marriage in the book.) Most of these aspects are still in the movie, but the movie also throws a bunch of other stuff at us; when not told through Judd’s first person narration, everything is given equal weight, and in a movie as stuffed as this one, that ends up being virtually no weight at all.
The main trouble is that Judd, played by Jason Bateman, is a bit of a nothing as a lead character. He’s a lot like every other character Bateman has ever played, especially Michael Bluth in Arrested Development — the calm eye at the center of a storm of a family. While that once worked really well, I’ve grown tired of seeing Bateman in this role; I’m not sure whose fault it is, exactly, that the Judd character has been so watered down, but this movie is sorely missing his perspective on what’s happening. Judd in the book was horny and bruised, torn between his feelings for two women, indifferent about becoming a father and uncertain in his grief over his own father’s demise. That irony is lost in the film, particularly because Judd’s scenes with Jen — sorry, Quinn — are by far the film’s weakest link. They’re poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly directed, and no offense to Abigail Spencer, but she seems awfully miscast in the role.
I grew frustrated with Judd in Tropper’s novel because Jen was, in my opinion, a heinous bitch, and did not warrant Judd’s deliberation about whether or not he should return to her when Penny was so much better. At the same time, Judd’s mourning of his marriage felt totally palpable, even in the way that it eclipsed his mourning of his father. The way he was haunted by his hatred for his adulterous wife also felt real. In a sense, the movie handles this better by not allowing Judd to waffle between his feelings for Quinn and Penny, skipping right to the conclusion that he and the unfaithful ex will raise their child as a divorced couple. But then why have so much Quinn in the movie? Dax Shepard is also miscast as Wade, which means pretty much everything involving Judd’s marital strife comes off pretty poorly. Wade is supposed to be an ultra-macho blowhard in his forties — Dax Shepard makes Wade too much an echo of Phillip, and not a serious threat whatsoever.The script reeks of studio notes demanding that Judd be “likeable,” which means not pining for his cheating wife, not lusting after every woman he lays his eyes on, not “accidentally” sleeping with his sister-in-law, not physically assaulting Wade on multiple occasions, not being such a jerk to Penny, and not being responsible for his brother’s attack by pit bull during their adolescence. Some of these are good and necessary omissions, but guess what? This Is Where I Leave You is about how guys are jerks; about how an emotionally distant father can create emotionally screwed up sons; about this chaotic family in which everyone is a little fucked up. Except now Judd is not fucked up. He’s an Everyman. A perfectly likeable guy.
So tell me where you’ve heard this one before. With an outrageous mother, an absentee dad, a sister in an unhappy marriage, two nutty brothers (one of whom is sleeping with a woman who reminds us of his mother), a host of kooky friends and acquaintances, Judd Altman literally becomes Michael Bluth and This Is Where I Leave You is basically just a big screen version of Arrested Development, except not nearly as skillfully written or directed. It’s all been done before, and much better. Tropper’s book never once reminded me of Arrested Development, because it had its own point-of-view. It was about something. This Is Where I Leave You is mostly just about a bunch of crazies sitting shiva.A lot of this is thanks to Tina Fey’s beefed up role as Wendy, and on the one hand, I get it — you have Tina Fey in your movie, so why not use her? But Wendy played a pretty small part in the book. She was, arguably, the seventh most important character, here beefed up to second billing. Most of her scenes are pretty good; I’m glad she had something to do here. But too many of them feel shoehorned in from another movie. If this adaptation had to sacrifice a storyline or two in order to be leaner and more focused, I wish it had dropped the Horry character. This movie doesn’t have room for a brain damaged neighbor, though Timothy Olyphant does what he can with a handful of scenes. We can sense that there could have something good there, but this film doesn’t have time to develop it.
Alternatively, Horry might’ve fit in just fine if the film had sacrificed Connie Britton’s Tracy — Adam Driver’s Phillip is enough of a wild card that he doesn’t necessarily need his own love interest. The film would’ve worked just fine with him as the cad he is, minus his former shrink and future wife. I liked these characters in the book, and I like the actors in the movie, but something’s gotta give in a movie with this many disparate stories. As is, the second half of the film feels like ending after ending after ending, with so many scenes of resolution that leave us to wonder, “Okay, fine, but where were all the scenes of conflict leading up to this tender resolution?” Yes, what I am essentially saying here is that I’d like to go back in time to rewrite and direct this movie.
Jonathan Tropper’s script might even be fine; I suspect that Shawn Levy’s direction is mostly to blame for what has been lost in the translation from page to screen. My reasons for suspecting this are as follows: The Internship. Real Steel. The Pink Panther. Cheaper By The Dozen. Date Night. All of the Night At The Museum movies. I have seen only one of these, Date Night, which hooked me with Tina Fey and Steve Carell before I knew any better. (Beware, beware the movie Tina Fey stars in but did not write.) The reason I have not seen the rest of these is quite simply because almost nobody thinks they were any good. And not a single one of these titles suggests that Levy is capable of handling the emotional complexity of This Is Where I Leave You.
This Is Where I Leave You begins badly. Judd walks in on his wife fucking his boss, and in his hands is her birthday cake. So what does he do? Smash the birthday cake over the fucking couple, right? Because: physical comedy? No — that’s what Judd does in the book, but since that is, I guess, not likeable, Judd doesn’t do anything. The first ten minutes of this film are pretty lame, though fortunately it picks up after the funeral. The cast is talented, so seeing them play off each other works more often than it doesn’t. Adam Driver has surprisingly good chemistry with Fey and Bateman; Rose Byrne makes the most out of not that much, which is what she does so well; a busty Fonda delivers her handful of one-liners with appropriate aplomb; there are several genuinely good scenes here, but they’re smashed together artlessly without any sense of how they hang together.
I know I’m coming off pretty negatively about This Is Where I Leave You, even if I ultimately enjoyed watching it. It’s certainly not an abomination, although a handful of scenes are outright bad. Everyone around Judd is more worthy of their own movie, so why follow him? I’m not sure it’s fair to blame Levy for the casting and for Michael Giacchino’s obnoxious, intrusive score, but I’m going to, anyway. Even the house the Altmans live in feels too chic and upper-middle-class for this story. Maybe that’s just how I pictured it, and maybe that’s my own fault, but you’ll have to take my word for it: the movie in my head is better.The movie in my head is actually a lot like The Skeleton Twins, which is also about screwed up siblings coping with an uptight mother and a deceased father, though the similaritiesend there. A few years back, a movie about twins played by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader would sound like a slapstick comedy that might best be avoided, but that was before this particular wave of Saturday Night Live alums began to show off their dramatic chops. In The Skeleton Twins, we get the best of both worlds — the movie is, at times, hilarious, but it’s also wrenching and real and a bit of a downer. Wiig and Hader aren’t jut actors playing at being funny; they actually are funny, and that makes a big difference here. Other actors might’ve been able to fake some of this, but we get a sense that this movie’s strongest only work because they’re performed by Wiig and Hader. The two have a sibling-like rapport that fills in all the gaps that would’ve been left gaping by a pair of actors who weren’t so familiar with each other. These two have some major chemistry going on.
Fortunately, the script is up to the task of bringing these fine comedians together. Hader is Milo, who decides to slit his wrists in a bathtub on the same day that his twin sister Maggie contemplates swallowing a handful of pills to end her life. Milo’s depression seems justified: he’s still hankering for the closeted English teacher who broke his heart in high school, he’s failing as an actor in Los Angeles, and he hasn’t spoken to his twin sister in a decade. Maggie’s unhappiness is initially harder to fathom — she’s married to Lance (Luke Wilson), the sweetest guy imaginable; she holds down a decent job, lives in a nice house, and is quite likely on her way to motherhood.Gradually, we learn a lot more about both Milo and Maggie and their very flawed parents, as well as the rift that caused them to go radio silent for so long. The information is doled out perfectly and organically, rather than in awkward expositionial chunks like a certain other movie about emotionally damaged siblings that I may or may not have just reviewed above this one. Milo and Maggie’s dad committed suicide many years ago, which is at least part of the reason they’re both fucked up, but certainly not the extent of it. The rest of it is best left discovered as the movie unfolds, but let’s just say this movie isn’t afraid to test the likeability of its protagonists, unlike a certain other movie about emotionally damaged siblings I may or may not have just reviewed above this one.
It’s hard not to view The Skeleton Twins as a study in how This Is How I Leave You should have been made. It is tight and focused, whereas This Is How I Leave You is sprawling and messy; there are only six consequential characters, and many appear in only a small handful of scenes (or even just one). It deals with death in a very real, somber way, and it is not afraid to show its characters with all warts displayed. And yet it also manages to be much funnier than This Is How I Leave You — it’s the rare movie that is dark as hell but with terrific moments of levity, thanks to Hader and Wiig. It’s not often that a movie so drenched in suicide can be so funny, and yet the strength of the comedy does not in any way cheapen or undermine the more dramatic moments. In fact, Milo and Maggie are probably the most well-rounded and realistic characters I’ve seen in a movie this year.It shouldn’t surprise anyone by now that these and other SNL alums can do such heavy lifting. Both stars sell the dramatic moments as easily as the comedic ones. It’s easy to imagine many actors being as good in the sadder scenes, but impossible to imagine anyone else nailing the comedic timing with such precision. Milo is the sort of moody gay you’ve probably met at least once. He’s sarcastic, he’s morose, but he’s also totally ridiculous, always finding a silly silver lining even in the bleakest of moments. And Maggie? She has it all on paper, but there’s a self-destructive streak running through her, as she has too successfully fled from the past without properly dealing with. And, well, who can really blame her for being attracted to Billy (Boyd Holbrook), her Australian scuba diving instructor?
The Skeleton Twins is expertly written by Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman, skillfully directed by Johnson. It is the perfect matching of light and dark. It features several actors who come across better here than they usually do, including Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell; Joanna Gleason gets one killer scene as the twins’ icy, New Age-y mother Judy. But it’s really Hader and Wiig’s show, and they constantly steal scenes from one another. The scene in which they get high on nitrous oxide is the comedic high point of 2014 — at least until the scene in which they sing along to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which should go down as one of the great musical moments in cinema history.
The Skeleton Twins is the funniest movie I’ve seen in 2014, and it’s not even really a comedy. This Is Where I Leave You has a very talented cast, including the usually unbeatable Tina Fey, but when it comes to comedy, I guess two Saturday Night Live grads is better than one.