There is a lot to like about This Is Where I Leave You, in theaters today. Based on Jonathan Tropper’s novel of the same name, TIWILY follows a family in mourning for its patriarch. Four adult siblings, plus their spouses, significant others, and proud-to-be-potty-trained kids are under a kind of house arrest; their mother (Jane Fonda) insists that it was their father’s dying wish that his children sit shiva, meaning the whole gang will spend a week back in the family homestead, bonding and bickering and remembering their dad. TIWILY is that movie you’ve probably been hearing about because everyone, or at least someone, you are obsessed with is in the cast. But the talent is better than the movie, which is aiming for something it never quite reaches.
When TIWILY addresses the strange, awkward process of grieving — the stabbing pain, the annoying obligation, the sudden emptiness of it all — you can see the story grasping at something meaningful and true. These stories that reunite grown, sprawling families under one roof can sometimes be so bizarre it’s hard to see anything like you recognize within them (the August: Osage County model). TIWILY, at times, feels like a family you know, a circumstance you understand. They’re Jewish the way a lot of Jews are Jewish: sporadically, begrudgingly, a little gratefully, usually at the behest of an older family member.
And the cast! That stacked, fan-favorites-only cast. They deliver, especially Tina Fey, who is acting, really acting, not just being funny and Tina Fey-like as in her previous big screen turns, but going to some other place and inhabiting another person. She’s all in. She also has the good fortune of getting the most compelling and heartbreaking storyline, one she shares with the always-welcome Timothy Olyphant, who here is the tragic version of the comic skateboarding stuck-in-high-school goon he played on The Mindy Project. Connie Britton’s presence is brief but affecting. She does so much with so little; I really wish someone would write a movie around her already. Jane Fonda is arch and funny and just a bit bonkers. Ben Schwartz, best known as Parks and Recreation delight Jean-Ralphio, is fantastic as the local rabbi who will never not be seen as the horny dweeb he apparently was as a kid.
But there’s this one big problem with TIWILY. The entire story revolves around an awful, uninspiring archetype: The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More.
The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More, played here by Jason Bateman, hasn’t ever really demonstrated any particular talents or abilities — he is just your average dude — and is loathe to take any meaningful action in order to improve his life. He is just too full of turbulent, deep, complicated feelings, feelings no one else could ever understand, but also that he can’t articulate. The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More is already married to someone beautiful (in the book, particular attention is paid to her phenomenal ass) but, while we hear this appreciation often via internal monologue, we never hear him appreciate her, to her face, out loud. We are told the reason these two “grew apart,” but we never will see The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More take real responsibility for his failings as a husband. His wife is cheating on him with his boss. His boss is a completely irredeemable scumbag, because The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More couldn’t possibly have to face the idea that his wife found someone better or, well, more deserving of her. No one in the story is allowed to deserve more than The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More.
All the women around The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More, in the case of TIWILY, are defined, more or less, by their children, their sex lives, or their inability to get and stay pregnant; all the men are defined by more complex, existential crises about growing up, responsibility, relationships and freedom. The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More will reconnect with the girl (Rose Byrne) who always had a huuuuge crush on him when they were in high school yet somehow escaped his notice. Of course this smitten, beautiful woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful is still there, right where he left her. She’s working in their hometown, pretty as ever and manic pixie patient, like Penelope knitting and unraveling her work as days turn into months and years before her beloved finds his way home. Naturally (light spoilers ahead) The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More manages to both bed the hometown honey and redeem himself in the eyes of his ex-wife.
Major spoilers below!
The ex-wife is pregnant, you see, and she is pregnant with the baby of The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More, because of course the other man is sterile (he does not deserve to bear children as much as The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More). After his ex-wife starts to bleed out and must be hospitalized, and after the boss dumps her because responsibility of any kind is too much for that obviously-unworthy bro, The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More decides NOW is the opportune time to go on a trip to Maine to find himself. Never mind that he has literally just promised his ex-wife that he will co-parent and they can be in this thing together, whether or not they are married. Never mind that she has miscarried once before and is clearly undergoing a high-risk pregnancy; she could well need to be hospitalized again. The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More must be free to figure himself out, well past the date at which all the other people in the world have their basics figured out. You see, there is nothing basic about his basics, not this tortured soul, not this good-man-at-heart, not this gent who is told by all his loved ones, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that he’ll be “a great dad.” Not The Ordinary Guy Who Deserves More.
Unfortunate side effects of this trope: it is hard to be supportive of the usually uber-likeable Bateman. How can you, as someone in the audience, be invested in a character’s happiness if that character seems like they could take it or leave it? Kathryn Hahn, who is capable of being hilarity personified, is stuck in the mold of an embarrassingly desperate and neglected wife (all the wives, except for Fonda’s character, are embarrassingly desperate and neglected in one way or another). We also have to listen to Bateman’s character say the phrase “I don’t do complicated” and have it repeated back to him, as if we wouldn’t be able to discern this obvious fact from his behavior. The boys have all the fun in a way that only points neon arrows at the limited roles of the women in their lives. Tropper’s book can be clever, surprising and heartfelt, but a lot of the sharp humor and insight is softened in translation, even though Tropper wrote the screenplay.
TIWILY couldn’t have a better cast. But it could be a much better movie.