“This Is Where I Leave You” — Chutzpah v. Repression

Jane Fonda and Tina Fey, two comic masterminds in one film? Yes, please!

9 to 5, which Ms. magazine featured on its January cover in 1981, remains one of my favorite comedies. Fonda as the naïve, buttoned-up secretary Judy, learns how to ovary-up from her feisty coworkers Violet (Lily Tomlin) and Doralee (Dolly Parton).

In real life, Fonda has proven her devotion to social justice causes for decades, and her feminist chutzpah continues to pack a punch. Fey, from her brilliant Sarah Palin impressions to her wise-cracking Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, is also feminist talent to root for.

The new film in which they costar, This Is Where I Leave You, features other great women actors as well—Rose Byrne in another comic turn, Connie Britton as a successful psychologist and Kathryn Hahn in a tragically funny “I must have a child or die” role.

Finally, a film that does not accord to the 1-female-for-every-5-males formula!

Speaking of males, there is much to be lauded in their roles as well, particularly Jason Bateman as Judd Altman (the protagonist), Adam Driver as Philip, the youngest Altman brother, and Dax Shepard as Wade, a shock jock as intolerable and dislikeable as Howard Stern.

A dramedy (with less emphasis on drama and more on comedy), the film is set in motion when Judd finds out his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) is sleeping with his boss Wade. Shortly, he learns his father has died and his mother Hillary (Fonda), is summoning him and his siblings to sit shiva in their childhood home.

Despite the sterling cast, thus far the film has mostly received lukewarm-to-negative reviews. The consensus seems to be that the comedy is overdone and repetitive, and the storyline mundane. But I did not come across any reviews that take seriously what I see as some of the best aspects of the film: the representation of a very successful older woman with sexual agency (Fonda); the acknowledgement that families are dysfunctional, crazy and difficult; the celebration of a “complicated” life where people mess up, get injured and die but we go on loving them anyway; and the understated-but-powerful depiction of how traditional masculinity is a prison.

Hillary is the type of mother who makes her children cringe, not only because she is clinging to youth a little too desperately (emphasized in the film via the running joke about her bionically fake boobs which have just undergone another surgery), but also because she is a no-filter, take-no-prisoners, say-it-like-it is communicator—especially when it comes to sexual matters. For example, speaking of her deceased husband, she says “The man was hung … I miss him … I miss it!” Fonda times the line perfectly and, no surprise here,  does a splendid job portraying a sexy older woman whose desires are nowhere near dead and gone. In fact, near the end of the film, we find out her sexuality is far from “traditional,” but I won’t reveal how. Suffice it to say this twist in itself makes the movie worth it for feminist viewers.

Another great line from Fonda comes when the family is discussing things of a sexual nature and she laments “I don’t know how you all got so repressed.” This is, in fact, a key message of the film—that everyone is too uptight, too focused on neat lives. Part of the loosening up required is to embrace dysfunction, to quit trying to act as if there is anyone without emotional baggage. Families have problems, and the Altman family has its share, but this is part of being human: accepting that no one is perfect, that your brother is a jerk sometimes, that your sister-in-law’s frantic desperation to have a baby deserves compassion.

My favorite dysfunctional family scene comes when Judd runs into Wade and, just as it looks like the much larger, more aggressive Wade is going to pummel Judd, Wendy (Tina Fey), comes to her brother’s rescue and answers Wade’s who-do-you-think-you-are attitude with a “princess cut”—a walloping punch in the face. While one reviewer condemns Wendy as a “sharp-tongued, bossypants sister,” I disagree: She, is, instead, a chip off the old block—wise, blunt and unabashedly forthright, like her mother. Stuck in a lackluster marriage to a workaholic, she is still in love with her high school sweetheart, Horry (Timothy Olyphant). Having left him after he suffered a brain injury, Wendy chose the seemingly less complicated life of marriage to a successful career man only to find she likely would have been far happier with Horry, the only one who consistently sees through her “bossy” veneer, as indicated by his nickname for her: Sunflower. Her experiences lead to admit that love is horribly difficult but still worth it, that “love causes cancer … but like everything else, it has its moments.”

Wendy’s relationship with Philip, the youngest sibling, is another highpoint of the film, as is Driver’s acting in this madcap, hate-to-love-him role. As one reviewer put it, “Driver is like the young Jeff Goldblum—willing to save a scene by pouring on personality.” While I disagree that the scenes in the film need “saving,” I concur that Driver adds depth to what could have been a typical black sheep role.

Perhaps most pervasively, the film questions what a “good” or “normal” life is for men. It does so mainly through the character of Judd, who is struggling with the end of his marriage, his lack of emotion over the death of his father and his rekindled feelings for high-school sweetheart Penny (Rose Byrne). We also get a critique of macho chauvinism through the character of Wade, who, when we first see him, is shouting advice through his radio microphone to his listeners: “Do a 4 or a 6 … don’t go for a 10,” he barks, suggesting “10s” are too difficult to deal with.

But the biggest point made about masculinity is the way in which it requires men to hide their emotion, or funnel it into acceptable forms like rage or women-chasing. Near the end of the film, Judd finally cries over the death of his father after Philip prods his memory that, though their father never kissed or hugged them, he did touch his forehead to theirs to show affection. Seeing Judd remember that his father actually did love him is poignant, a moment that lays bare how the masculine expectation to not be too emotional, too touchy-feely, too sappy, ends up scarring males in various ways.

Earlier, Judd says of his father “I missed him when he was alive.” In other words, he missed him because he was not there emotionally, except for the few times he lowered his masculine guise.

So I disagree with the claim that just when the film “enters into some meaty issues that deserve serious treatment,” it “gets nervous and falls into forced comedy.” Rather, I think it proves that comedy is sometimes the best way to deal with meaty issues. When it comes to such issues, “It’s OK to laugh, or cry, there’s no correct response,” as Hillary advises her children and others regarding the death of her husband. Or, as Wendy’s toilet-training toddler’s fondness for using his potty on the porch symbolizes, sometimes it’s best to poop in front of the world, to let others see the uglier side of yourself, to be raw and vulnerable and complicated. Because, as Penny says to Judd, “anything can happen all the time.”

Some see this movie as too much of nothing, too formulaic, too filled with “over-obvious mayhem.” I thought it was anything but. I laughed and I cried. I think Hillary Altman would approve.















Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.