This is Where I Leave You

A lot of people would say that the romantic comedy is the worst kind of comedy. They would argue that rom-coms are formulaic, they're sappy, and they're hardly ever funny. I'm not going to put up too much of a fight against those allegations, because it is true that a bad rom-com is formulaic, sappy, and unfunny. But! They are not the worst. The reason is simple: a generic rom-com can still be kind of charming if it has the right cast. As long as the script isn't too insulting, as long as the ending isn't too sappy, as long as it's lead actors are charismatic enough, I will totally let a mediocre rom-com slide.

No, I think the worst kind of comedy is a wacky family comedy. (And just so that we're clear, I'm not talking about a silly comedy that's appropriate for families to watch - I'm talking about a movie where some poor protagonist has to put up with all his kooky relatives.) Wacky family comedies fall into the same traps as rom-coms, where they are built on predictable story beats, they're too sentimental, and they aren't nearly as funny as they should be. However, romantic comedies are built on the idea that you would be able to fall in love with a likeable person while wacky family comedies are built on the idea that all of your in-laws are totally obnoxious- and that means that romantic comedies are built to capitalize on charisma while wacky family comedies are built to undermine it.

This is Where I Leave You is a perfect example of how wacky family comedies sabotage their talent by giving their actors terrible material to work with. This movie's cast is a murderer's row of likeable people. It's anchored by Jason Bateman, who was the heart of Arrested Development, one of the most beloved comedies of the last fifteen years; it also has Tina Fey, whom everyone agrees is a comedy genius; there's Jane Fonda, who deserves every inch of the two Oscars she won; there's Connie Britton, who was so great on Friday Night Lights; there's Corey Stoll, who killed it on House of Cards; Ben Schwartz, whose Jean Ralphio character steals every Parks and Recreation scene he's in; there's Adam Driver from Girls, Timothy Olyphant from Justified, Dax Sheppard from Idiocracy, Kathryn Hahn from Kroll Show, Rose Byrne from Neighbors... There are so many great people in this movie that just listing them feels excessive.

....And yet This is Where I Leave You is an awful movie. It starts on the wrong foot by opening with a scene where a man discovers that his wife is cheating on him in his own bed with his boss - which is a really goddamned cliched way to open a movie. Then TIWILY doubles down on that bad beginning by revealing that this poor sap's father just died. We're not ten minutes in and the movie has already dug itself into a hole: I started watching this movie expecting to laugh and now I'm thinking about how much it sucked when my own dad died. Unfortunately it gets even worse once he goes home for the funeral and we meet the rest of the family, because their problems are not just unfunny, they're obvious and one-note and purposefully irritating.

The conceit of This is Where I Leave You is that it was in the father's will that the entire dysfunctional family has to sit shiva for him, which means that they all have to be in the same room together for a week. This decree immediately makes them uncomfortable and their discomfort made me nervous - if they don't want to be around each other what are the odds that I'm going to want to be around them? 

Sure enough, it doesn't take long for all of the characters to announce the one annoying quirk they have been alotted by the script: there is one woman who is desperate to get pregnant, one woman whose husband is a jerk because he's always doing business instead of paying attention to her, there's a next door neighbor with a brain injury, because of course there's a next door neighbor with a brain injury. (And no, he doesn't factor into the plot at all.) Every single character is reduced to a simple, predictable story arc - is the fuck up going to keep fucking up? (Yes, but he will reveal his heart of gold, too.) Is the woman who is desperate for a baby going to be sexually humiliated? (Yes, when a baby monitor accidentally broadcasts the sounds of her lovemaking to an entire potluck.) Is Jason Bateman going to get laid by the girl he had a crush on in high school? (Yes, in an ice skating rink while they listen to 90s music.)

I could deal with how cliched all those scenarios are, and I could even deal with the fact that most of this movie's jokes don't really land - if this film just wanted to be a comedy. However, I can't forgive movies like this which bring up the specter of real traumas and then jokingly wave them away. Yes, of course if this was real and a family this big was trapped in a space this small for this much time under such intense pressure past resentments would begin to bubble over - but in the real world those tensions would never be resolved because they would lead to fights that would cause irreparable emotional damage. Movies like This is Where I Leave You will throw in a few scenes of someone losing it because they know that it's a cheap way to add drama to the story, but they don't really want to deal with the consequences of those emotions. They have no room for actual grief, or for a realistic airing of grievances because they need to build to some sort of happy ending - even though a happy ending is pretty much impossible after a disastrous funeral.

Both rom-coms and the wacky family comedy are built around sentimentality, but they build to their sappy conclusions in opposite ways. Most rom-coms start with some unlikely scenario but then build to a plausible conclusion: they tend to have a lot of too-convenient plot complications but they're trying to get two people to fall in love - which is a thing that really happens. Wacky family comedies, however, are the reverse, because they start with the plausible and then build to the impossible: everyone has relatives that drive them crazy, but no one has ever had their dysfunctional family reunite after a big speech was given on someone's front lawn. The fact that one is building towards a positive outcome and the other is trying to avoid ending up at a negative outcome is very important - it's a big part of the reason why actors come off better in rom-coms than they do in family comedies. After all, good actors can save a mediocre rom-com because their charm give us a reason to want to believe - when an actor is credible in a romantic comedy that helps the audience believe that there might be some perfect partner out there for us, too. But good actors actually doom a wacky family comedy, because they make their selfish and terrible and cruel characters believable - and who wants to believe in that? Take my word for it: wacky family comedies are the worst.

Winner: The Cat

This is Where I Leave You on IMDB