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Flushing Away Life's Plan
Written on 09/14/2014, film first viewed by author on 09/09/2014
For how long in the entire span of human history has someone had to remind somebody else that life isn’t fair? When did the first caveperson realize that, as hard they tried, nothing will ever go exactly according to plan, and then pass that information along to another struggling caveperson? By now, most human beings realize life isn’t fair, most are at least content with that, and then quickly get tired of being reminded that life isn’t fair. The phrase gets tiresome, does it not? That doesn’t stop the new Shawn Levy picture, This Is Where I Leave You, from reminding audiences the undeniable fact (Dare the phrase be uttered again?).
The protagonist, Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), is the butt-end of a cruel joke of life. Just as he learns that his wife has been cheating on him for a whole year with his boss, he gets a call from his sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), informing him that his father has died. Embarrassed that his marriage has horribly failed, he attempts to keep the whole thing a secret as he is forced to stay with his mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda) and siblings for seven days of mourning (in accordance with the Jewish practice of Shiva). Comical scenarios ensue, with private-life conversations constantly being dug up as Hillary is a well-known psychiatrist/writer.
Many great themes are brought to the story of This Is Where I Leave You, among them the re-connection of a separated family, seizing the day, facing old demons, and (most certainly) the Freudian connections between sex and everything else in life. What works for both the comedic and dramatic elements of the film is that the writing (coming straight from screenwriter Jonathan Tropper’s novel) is very honest. It is honest and mostly believable. Everything that happens to Judd and his family could actually happen in real life. In an era of American cinema where comedy seems to be free-falling into fantastical buddy cop explosions, overly low-brow political soapboxes for the pot culture, and absurd date-nights-turned-master-heists, This Is Where I Leave You is about the things audiences can relate to on a deeper, emotional level: life, death, the striving for perfection, depression, and falling in and out of love.
A motif that really works in the film was noticeable to this author on two occasions. These are the times when Judd chooses to shut everything out of his head when things become a bit too complicated (and as is mentioned in dialogue, Judd “doesn't do complicated” easily). When Judd just learns of his wife’s infidelity, he ignores her, even though she is standing in the same room. In the sound mix, her voice and all other natural sounds dissolve away. This happens again in Judd’s childhood home when he puts earphones on to drown out family bickering.
Purchase "This Is Where I Leave You", the novel from which the film is based
Though this comedy admirably dove into the darker sides of everyday human cruelty, and had a couple of touching moments, it wasn't without the stuff that “had to be” thrown in to attract the normal comedy crowd of today. The bits concerning breast enlargements and “old people sex” are too over-played, and we couldn't get away without one scene of characters getting baked. Toilet humor is used in its most literal sense as a young member of the family does his business in a training toilet he carries around everywhere. Perhaps it can be seen as “cute”, and maybe even metaphorical (which may just be what the film tries to grasp for).
As Judd learns from the attractive and manic Penny (Rose Byrne), playing it safe throughout life can have stifling disadvantages. In a world where mainstream culture still expects people to live a life of “normality”, some people are finding harsh contradictions. Just like Judd, they find that their perfect life isn’t really that perfect, and that no one really has it figured out either. The only way he could realize that was to go back to his family and compare his life with other people’s lives, that of his family and old friends. Judd finally finds comfort in the mayhem. He finds that nothing is set in stone, so there are always chances to do anything else.