October 1, 2014 – I took a writing class not too long ago where the instructor warned us to never open a story at a funeral. You won’t be invested enough in the characters to care about the dead person or those mourning that person, she said.
“This is Where I Leave You”, the new Indy dramedy directed by Shawn Levy, was based on a novel that didn’t follow my instructor’s advice, yet left me caring about the characters immediately proving that the rules of writing cry out to be broken if you can do it well.
The Altman family has its share of problems and secrets, and these are magnified when they are expected to sit Shiva for seven days after their father dies. It’s the first time the family has been together for any length of time for years, so you expect chaos. However, that chaos is entertaining, heartwarming, and quite funny.
The screenplay is based on the book by the same name by Jonathan Trooper, who also wrote the screenplay. It seems to work better when the author who created the characters for the novel, and knows them best, also writes the screenplay. It also doesn’t hurt that the strong ensemble cast, headed by Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda, is spot on and believable.
Judd Altman (Bateman) is having a tough go of it lately. He’s just discovered that his wife is having an affair with this boss (Dax Shepard) and on top of that drama, his father dies. He heads home to visit with his mother (Fonda) and his siblings Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver).
Seven days is a long time to spend together, and tensions run high, secrets are revealed, and old relationships are renewed. There are also plenty of situations that are misunderstood, which may sound like the common plotline of any sitcom, but it works here. I bought into the family dysfunction, even though we’ve seen several variations on this reunion theme with “The Big Chill”, “Beautiful Girls”, and “Indian Summer”, to name a few.
While many film critics didn’t like the film as much as I did, it played out exactly as I expected. It’s one of those cases, I believe, where a great book can never matter as much once in screenplay form. However, I didn’t read the book, and for one hour and 40 minutes I was entertained, I laughed a little and cried a little, and I left the theater satisfied. Isn’t that what we want in a movie experience?
“This is Where I Leave You” is playing in wide release now in theaters across the country. It may not be likely to earn nominations or wins in any of the major film awards, but it is a pleasing story with a strong cast and plenty of clever dialogue.