‘This Is Where I Leave You’: Family Dramedy Revisited

This, of course, is how such concoctions work: all supporting players tell you something about the original squabbling family members, and each of these tells you something about the primary family member.

“Dad is dead.” These might be the three most dreaded words in dramedy, setting up for family reunions, conflicts, and shenanigans. Just so: as Wendy (Tina Fey) utters these words over the phone to her brother Judd (Jason Batman), in the background their mother hovers over dead dad on his hospital bed, wondering whether or not to pull the undignified tube from his nose. Distracted by her efforts to calm Judd and ensure he will come to the funeral, mom does what you know she will with that tube.

That mom is played by Jane Fonda makes clear This Is Where I Leave You‘s way forward, which is to say that her upscale affect and proper appearance give way regularly to rambunctious behavior and language. As Hilary, Fonda is what you know she’ll be, a successful powerhouse type teetering between rigid and outrageous.

Her children expect what you expect (“How’s mom?” asks Judd on the phone; “She’s mom,” answers Wendy, “She asked how much to tip the nurses”) and their rolling eyes or glances away tend to telegraph jokes ahead of time. These expressions also help you to feel as if both they’re in on those jokes, making for a smug sort of comedy.

Consider the first image at the funeral, which is not the hallowed “umbrellas in rain” shot, but more overtly comic, a close shot of dirt at the gravesite. Cut to the more conventional pan over faces, some tearful, some family, most anonymous guests dressed in black. Hilary’s kids — including oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll), attending with wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) — comment on her prominently displayed new breasts (she’s scheduled for a new book tour, being a celebrity child psychologist), on rudely distracted missing spouses, and on the youngest brother, Phillip (Adam Driver) who arrives, guess what? late, as well as in a brand new Porsche with super-sound-system bass pounding.

You’ve seen all of this before, and you anticipate that the week to follow (when Hilary insists the children sit shiva) will include drinking and smoking weed (when truths will out), visits with neighbors not quite forgotten (when gazes will linger), and fisticuffs (when boys will sputter and whine and a girl will punch out an especially deserving target). You also have seen the central dilemma facing Judd (apart from his dad being dead), which is that he’s not exactly explaining his own missing spouse Quinn (Abigail Spencer), whom he’s recently caught in bed with Wade (Dax Shepard), a New York City radio shock jock for whom Judd was producer.

To augment that insult and injury pile, Wade’s show is called “Man Up”, during which he beats up on callers who sound girly (and no, making this gender stereotype commentary a preemptive joke doesn’t challenge the stereotype). The movie explains Quinn’s falling for this guy as a function of a previous tragedy and her husband’s emotional neglect, but sheesh, it just makes her seem the dumbest and most stereotypical sort of unhappy wife.

Add to that another familiar situation, Penny (Rose Byrne), the high school girlfriend Judd left behind for no clear reason, still in town, still ice skating (because she wasn’t a cheerleader?) and still good for making gooey eyes at the guy who left her. Wendy, who appears repeatedly with baby on hip, has an equally predictable spouse, a wheeler-dealer business guy attached to his phone, as does Paul (he and Annie are trying desperately to have a baby, which means it’s her role to summon him to bed periodically and inconveniently during the week, and his to fret).

As for Philip, he has a cougar along with him, a therapist (formerly Phillip’s therapist) named Tracy (Connie Britton), a seemingly smart and professional woman who is somehow “in love” with this cruelly self-absorbed and apparently charming manchild (Driver does bring some entertaining line readings and he’s got a body made for physical hijinks). While Tracy is allowed a moment or two to express her self-awareness to one or another of Phillip’s siblings, she is, for the most part, the emblem of his charisma, not herself but an extension of him.

This, of course, is how such concoctions work: all supporting players tell you something about the original squabbling family members, and each of these tells you something about the primary family member, which is to say, Judd. The stale premise doesn’t give way to a set of surprises, doesn’t allude to one resolution that becomes another, and is only thumped harder by sad piano cues.

If you wanted to pursue that staleness, you might say the film is structured as “comfort food”, but it’s not comfortable. This isn’t just because the kids wrestle or punch, lecture or harass one another. It’s because the arrangements of those kids’ tedious behaviors and desires are also tedious. Girls want babies, boys want reassurance, girls nurture, boys need to wander. Dad is dead. Long live formula.

RATING 3 / 10