Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Skeleton Twins and This Is Where I Leave You

Family Ties of a Knotty Nature
    Review by Ken Burke         The Skeleton Twins
Suicide attempts bring an estranged pair of siblings together, leading to clashes, personal problems for both, and slow realizations for both of how mutually vital they are.
                                                        This Is Where I Leave You
4 adult siblings and their mother gather to pay tribute to just-departed-Dad, each one bringing plenty of emotional baggage although there are some hearty laughs as well.
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My marvelous wife, Nina, and I have just recently returned from a long journey into the Canadian Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, but we also went to neighboring Newfoundland [which is connected politically to Labrador, although we didn’t get that far north]), along with Quebec, which is the reason why I haven’t posted anything here for over a month.  Now that I’ve returned with something to report on I’ll try to get Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark back on a weekly track, although you’ll just have to forgive my silence on anything I missed during my break because I barely turned on a TV (except for occasional ISIS and weather reports, with the former much more negative than the latter as all-out-war rears its ugly head again) let alone found my way into a movie theater (I did rewatch The Amazing Spider-Man II and Draft Day while flying from San Francisco to Boston and back, seeing nothing the second time to change my initial reactions, found at the respective May 8, 2014 and April 23, 2014 Two Guys postings).  Instead, we spent several marvelous weeks indulging in open spaces, never-ending-forests, quaint coastside towns, enormously friendly people, and unusual (for me) food options, including mooseburgers, poutine (French fries, gravy, and chunks of cheese for starters but open to further creativity), and cod tongues (quite honestly, I didn’t want to ask too much about fish anatomies, but they tasted a bit like raw oysters).

While we stayed in a good number of very nice motels and Bed and Breakfast lodgings along the way, I do want to pay special attention to the marvelous See the Sea B&B located in the outskirts of St. John ‘s in Newfoundland, run by Sandy Cole (I offer my assurances that, as usual, I get no kickback whatsoever for any business generated by my recommendation; she’s simply got a great place to stay with a fine morning meal that I’m happy to encourage others to try, although probably not in the winter months because everything but essential operations for the locals closes up by around October when the weather makes even intra-province travel rather difficult).  Sandy’s a wonderful Irish lady who’ll give you great tips on what to see in her area, how to get there on the backroads, and excellent stories about her many travels that have led to the unique, colorful, and exotic furnishings of her house which could easily be appreciated as an art installation.  And, if you get into a Celtic mood from talking to her, you can find a great concentration of Irish and Scottish—along with French and folk/pop/country—music throughout these provinces but especially on George Street in St. John’s which boasts the most bars per capita (in 2 blocks) of any street in North America (as well as plenty of signs which I still somehow missed that you’re not allowed to leave your car there after 6pm so I also contributed a parking-ticket-payment to the good folks in theirTraffic Control, along with our ongoing investments in keeping Canadian pubs flourishing).

Given that I’m supposed to be reviewing films here rather than providing travelogues I’ll get back to the official matter at hand shortly, but first I just had to share 1 more photo with you, proving, I guess, that Canadian authorities are a lot more honest about how their truckers operate than are the highway guardians here in the States.  On a less jovial note, though, during our absence we found that our beloved Oakland Athletics baseball team had fallen out of a comfortable lead in first place in the American League Western Division to be so far behind as to lose the option of three-peating as Western Division champs, with only a slim change of making the playoffs toward the World Series through the Wildcard option.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen!  Especially as they went from having the best record in the sport for several weeks to now being barely able to demonstrate why they were so good for so long.  Oddly enough, their downfall began on the night that we boarded a “ferry” (if that’s really the proper name for a 9-story ship carrying passengers, cars, and trucks from Portland, ME to Nova Scotia) to head into the Atlantic lands of our northern neighbors.  Maybe we should have skipped going east this year, instead following the advice of possibly Canada’s greatest pop music singer-songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot (which quickly opens up the arguments in favor of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, among others, I’m sure) to go west instead by being "Alberta Bound" (from the 1972 Don Quixote album) or even up beyond Niagara Falls to "North Ontario" (actually, the second part of “Cabaret” from his 1971 Summer Side of Life album, still my favorite of his except for the Greatest Hits collections), but now that we’re back home the A’s are starting to win a bit more so maybe they’re as excited about our return as our cats were (seriously; we think that our real felines have been replaced by affectionate clones who seem to finally like each other and don’t howl at mealtimes—an even better result than the A’s winning another pennant).

With just 1 more diversion before finally getting to this week’s reviews, I’ll note that I did see 3 very different varieties of cinematic expression before we set out on our expedition, but they’ve now been out so long that 2 of them seem to have totally disappeared from SF-area-screens so I won’t offer even my somewhat-lengthy- “not-an-official-review”-commentary for any of them but will simply mention the 3 in passing regarding your possible interest as they might still be lingering in your area or will surely be available soon on DVD or On Demand.  By far the best of the bunch was Calvary (James Michael McDonagh) in which Brendan Gleeson is an innocent priest (a rare enough presence these days in films, news, or the pews) facing a death threat from an unknown assassin, wanting the church to do penance for the sins forced upon this troubled man when he was a boy; restraint in story structure and consistently impactful acting make this one of the best of 2014 (other critics thought so as well, with an 89% positive response at Rotten Tomatoes, 77% from Metacritic).  Before this completely disappears (been out for 8 weeks now with only about $3.5 million in sales) you might want to check out the official website and/or the trailer for a film that I’d give 4 stars of 5 if called upon for a rating.  However, I’d only be able to go with 3 stars of 5 for What If (Michael Dowse), in which Daniel Radcliffe continues to age past his Harry Potter and … stories into a young adult, this time being a faithful friend to Zoe Kazan‘s character even though he’s wildly attracted to her but wants to maintain the integrity of their friendship in the face of her existing romance.  It’s pleasant enough but easily forgotten (and already gone when we got back) with another slim $3.5 box-office-take and moderate reviews (Rotten Tomatoes, 69%; Metacritic, 56%); more is available at its websites here and here, plus its trailer.  Certainly the most visually unique of these 3—or just about anything else you’d care to compare it to—would be Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Frank Miller, Robert Rodriquez), the sequel to the previous (2005) cinematification of what must be a very graphic novel, with tough customers and sizzlin’ babes everywhere you look (along with plenty of spilled blood to help keep Basin City’s population in check, although not so gory when rendered as it is here mostly in stark black and white to retain the look of the source imagery, as photography morphs into computer graphics in every shot).  It’s fascinating to look at but gets tedious as a plotline the longer it keeps repeating itself in its thuggish debauchery over its seemingly-reasonable 102 min. running time until you realize that it feels MUCH LONGER than that; so, based on boredom over continued enthrallment I’d have to estimate a maximum 3 stars of 5 if I were offering any, which corresponds somewhat—but in a much more positive manner from generous, art-direction-appreciative-me—with how others have reacted to this collage of unsavory characters (Rotten Tomatoes, 45%; Metacritic 46%—a rare meeting of those minds), although it has pulled in about 13.5 million domestic dollars after 5 weeks in release; if the complex and engaging graphic treatment intrigues you, though, you might want to check out the Sin City sequel's official site, along with its visually-compelling trailer, although that's about as R-rated as the film so if you need something a bit more sanitized—as much as you can “clean up” something like this—here’s an alternative version to watch.

OK, with retrospective ramblings and marginalized movie commentary in place, let’s more on to what’s considerably more recent with a pair of intriguing dysfunctional-family-stories that each offer a nice menu of laughs, serious issues worthy of contemplation, and familiar-feeling-interfamily-feuds that some will embrace the familiarity of in their combination of humor and pain, others will likely reject as something they don’t need to pay for when they can get it all-too-often-for-free at family holiday gatherings.  While The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson) and This Is Where I Leave You (Shawn Levy) have similar plot situations—each family’s father is dead (long ago for The Skeleton Twins, close to the beginning of … Leave You), each one features mother-child-tensions (primarily with the daughter, Maggie [Kristen Wiig], of the twins’ film vs. all 4 of them in the larger ensemble), each plot offers major trauma over situations of deceit (a running theme in both of these stories), and both find themselves with satisfying solutions (at least for the characters if not fully for us as audiences)Hey, you haven’t been away from my filmic explications long enough to have forgotten that I revel in plot spoilers with no sense of remorse, have you?  If so, you might want to put the rest of this review on hold for a bit, in that This Is Where I Leave You just opened wide last weekend while The Skeleton Twins has been out for 2 weeks but in very limited release so that either or both of these may be something you’d like to see before knowing everything about their conclusions.  If you’re still with me, though, I’ll quickly set the stage for how each plot is set up, then take each of them somewhat separately except where comparisons are called for due to various similarities (with the acknowledged opening parallel that both of these feature folks once or now primarily known for their TV personas but who are moving steadily into the world of the larger screen).  In The Skeleton Twins we could have finished the story before it even began if either sibling had slightly more suicidal resolve, but Milo’s (Bill Hader) wrist-slashing-in-the-bathtub just leaves him injured—and fully alive to mourn his failed L.A. career as an actor and the traumas that being gay has dealt him so far—while news of that death-attempt phoned to his sister, Maggie, prevents her from swallowing her handful of pills—facing despair in her life as a failing wife and would-be-mother (failures yet unknown to her spouse)—opting instead to bring Milo to live with her in Nyack, NY as each of them discovers the deceit being played out by their other half:  Maggie‘s having an affair with her scuba instructor (as she has with 2 other specialty-class-teachers) while taking birth-control-pills to secretly prevent the pregnancy desired by her loving-supportive-yet-doofus-husband, Lance (Luke Wilson); Milo’s sneaking off to reconnect with his former high-school-teacher which opens up huge wounds for Maggie.  With the larger clan of the
Altmans, the primary focus in on the travails of middle-brother Judd (Jason Bateman), whose once solid (so he thought) marriage and career are now gone because he caught wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer—another TV link [more to be explored below], in that this unordinary name [yes, there was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman years ago, but that was a surname so don’t try to confuse here, OK?] was also used for the pregnant cheerleader in the opening season of the teenage traumas in Glee [that character played by Diana Agron until she became one of the post-graduation-moved-on's as that series brought in new characters for Ohio while focusing on a small group of the originals relocated to NYC, with my usual round-the-bend-connection here being that the 2 filmic offerings under consideration share another link in being set in New York counties upstate a bit from the City, … Twins in Nyack, Rockland County and … Leave You in nearby Westchester County) in bed with his talk-show-radio-boss, Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard), so just like his Michael Bluth character from the fabulous-but-short-lived TV series Arrested Development, Bateman’s Judd is the assumed serious one of the bunch as he tries to reignite with old flame, Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), while sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is lusting for her old-high-school-hottie, Horry Callen (Timothy Olyphant)—now limited by a brain injury (that happened back in the day with Wendy) but not unaware of his shortcomings—and older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is frustrated by the lack of his siblings’ support in trying to maintain Dad Mort’s sporting goods store but also by his own inability to impregnate wife/desperate-mother-to-be Annie (Kathryn Hahn), leaving the youngest of the clan, Phillip (Adam Driver), to be the classic ne’er-do-well, although he’s trying—somewhat—to get serious with older almost-fiancée, Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton), a Ph.D. psychiatrist who could probably make enough off sessions with this potential brood of in-laws to retire early if she could get any of them to slow down long enough to schedule some appointments.

From these crumbling foundations, we move on to how the 2 related-but-distinct-stories play out, with both set in the U.S. northeast, which helps me—given my recent immersion into foggy, wet Atlantic-neighboring-lands—with my transition back to sunny but still drought-plagued California (where a little rain is finally on the horizon, hopefully in time to put some our raging wildfires under control).  Another link of familiarity for me while I ease back into reviewing is that as autumn has officially rolled around this week, bringing with it the official start of the fall TV season as I find myself surrounded by familiar TV faces in both of these plots, with the most obvious pairing being Wiig and Hader (who overlapped on Saturday Night Live for almost a decade until their recent departures), but also Ty Burrell, the hilarious Phil Dunphy on Modern Family (where he’s won 2 Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series [along with 3 more nominations—the series itself is also award-heavy including a string of 5 straight Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series since its debut in 2010), whose character in The Skeleton Twins, Rich, is that aforementioned former high-school-teacher, resulting in a molestation scandal that led to his dismissal due to Maggie’s testimony (who felt a need to protect her brother, despite Milo's openness to the seduction).  For that matter, if I were a more avid TV watcher I might also be aware of Joanna Gleason (playing the twins’ mother, Judy, a would-be New Age maven whose proclivities and personality apparently drove their father to suicide, incurring wrath from Maggie that’s never subsided; the situation isn’t helped when Milo informs Mom of his relocation, resulting in a most unwelcome drop-in-visit, further undermined by the reality that it wasn’t so much concern for her children that brought her by but more the convenience that she was already in route from her home in Sedona, AZ to her annual Insight Retreat in nearby Woodstock, NY) from her TV work on such series as Blue Bloods and The Good Wife or recognized her voice from a show I did see regulary, the animated King of the Hill.

As for This Is Where I Leave You and its TV-related-personalities, in addition to Bateman there’s the obvious presence of Fey (also a long-standing member of the SNL cast, then her move to being producer/writer/star of 30 Rock which also netted her some Emmys—1 for writing, 1 for acting, and 3 for Outstanding Comedy Series [in the 3 years immediately preceding Modern Family’s current run]). Again, my TV attention in recent years leaves me lacking on other members of the … Leave You cast, but were it not so I’d be aware of Driver for Girls (although I do know his distinctive look from several recent films—What If [see brief mentions far above], Inside Llewyn Davis [Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013; review in our December 27, 2013 posting], Lincoln [Steven Spielberg, 2012; review in our December 28, 2012 posting], Francis Ha [Noah Baumbach, 2012; review in our May 20, 2013 posting]), Byrne for Damages, Stoll for House of Cards and Law & Order: LA, Hahn for Parks and Recreation and Girls, Britton for Nashville, American Horror Story, and Friday Night Lights, Olyphant for Justified and Damages, Shepard for Parenthood, Spencer for Rectify and Suits; additionally, I might have recognized Debra Monk (playing Altmans’ neighbor and mother of Horry, Linda Callen) from Reckless and Damages (although I could have remembered actually seeing her on Grey’s Anatomy in a few episodes) and Ben Schwartz (playing young, attempting-to-be-hip Rabbi Charles Grodner [known as “Boner” in his high-school-days, a nickname not to be forgotten by Phillip]) from Parks and Recreation and House of Lies.  So, for those of you much more TV-savvy than me, you’ve got a lot of familiar faces to possibly cope with in these movies, with the coping (if any) to come from known actors occupying unknown roles if that turns out to the be case.  As for me, I found Wiig, Wilson, Bateman, Fey, Driver, Byrne, and Hahn to be very comfortable as their characters—even though Wiig and Fey are called upon to push themselves firmly into dramatic personas with only occasional opportunities to demonstrate the comic chops they’re so famous for—because all of them were showing sides of their screen personas that I’d seen and appreciated previously.  On the other hand, the big revelations were Hader and Burrell, although I was quite impressed with how Jane Fonda, as Altman-matriarch Hillary, managed to pull off a similar role to what Gleason did in The Skeleton Twins but making it clearer how her no-holds-barred-attitude had alienated her children, setting the situation a bit better for the confrontations to inevitably come.  (Admittedly, Gleason had to make her impression in just 1 scene, never to be seen again, while Fonda got most of her film to distribute her progeny-irritation, so I’ll say the fault lies in the script where Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson have to turn what could be just a quirky worldview on Judy’s part into a supremely-annoying-to-the-point-of-total-rejection-position as she storms out on Maggie and Milo, leaving this as one of the weakest, most unconvincing aspect of The Skeleton Twins.)

What’s totally convincing about these disturbed siblings, however, is that they convey the ongoing intimate knowledge (even when it might seem skewed to an outsider like only-child-me, such as Maggie bringing Milo apple fritters to the hospital when she first sees him after the slashing incident—a strange choice of a gift, but she must know his tastes even when he probably has little appetite), trust—and its resulting problems when violated—and attraction/repulsion that the Skeleton kids had shared with each other for their entire lives from conception until the point 10 years ago when they broke off contact, we assume because of the hostility that resulted from Maggie speaking out against Rich in response to what she considered child abuse as Milo was only 15 at the time (to complicate Milo's attempts to reconnect with Rich, his former mentor—who encouraged a love for literature as well for himself [although both he and Milo deny that they actually did anything inappropriate], especially where the epic Moby Dick was concerned, actualized by a tiny whale sculpture given by teacher to student—now has his own 16-year-old-son but one who seems completely oblivious as to why this guy is visiting his dad or even sleeping on their couch one night [how they managed to share a bedroom in the house another night without the son being aware of it, nor what became of the woman that I understood Rich was now involved with as he’s trying desperately to deny his homosexual desires, especially where Milo is concerned, is not something I’m clear on, another script convenience [as far as I can tell, while admitting I may have missed some clarifying dialogue while I was trying to scribble notes in the dark] that mildly takes away from the impact of the story as a whole).  Despite Maggie and Milo putting some of the estrangement of those 10 years behind them in a couple of great scenes where first they get high on nitrous oxide (Maggie’s a dental hygienist who insists on cleaning Milo’s teeth prior to his insistence that they indulge in a little free intoxication) and later lighten up some tension by pulling out an act from their past, lip-synching to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (from the 1987 No Protection album—which I’ll break routine and announce now as my appropriate musical metaphor for this movie, at, because ultimately it’s about survival, a key theme in the story here, and this original music video looks about as silly as what’s going on in The Skelton Twins with another dose of obvious lip-syncing and what I assume are scenes from Mannequin [Michael Gottlieb, 1987], a movie in which this tune is featured and was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Song), they mostly treat serious material seriously, to great impact in their command of character motivation and subsequent actions.

 At moments such as these we feel the effective echo of Wiig’s Target Lady and Hader’s Stefan characters from their late-night-TV-years, but mostly they play it straight as damaged souls who feel lost in their own lives and unsuccessful in sharing themselves appropriately with anyone else.  In regard to Milo’s self-bloodletting, we get the sense that he’s despondent because he feels he peaked in high school, not living up to Dad’s promise that he’d soar as he got older while the punks who bullied him as a kid would be the ones who’d become forgotten failures (however, an Internet search revealed that the chief bully is now happily married and successful), yet he still has hopes of making connections which he knows are available with guys such as Rich if Rich could ever get past his own self-deceit and desired public image.  Maggie, on the other hand, should be able to revel in a solid relationship with a decent, hard-working man who loves her, readily accepts her brother, and just wants to build a family of their own, yet she’s a serial cheater and ongoing liar with her spouse, constantly undermining her own stability, releasing her own demons.

One review I read of The Skeleton Family offers the complaint that we don’t get a properly-clarified-understanding of Maggie's opening-scenes-suicide-decision with the pills, but if that critic can’t understand how the ongoing emptiness resulting from the loss of her father when she was a child would lead her to self-destruction of both the emotional and physical kind, then that film analyst may have never been in a position to contemplate the big exit (Maggie says to Milo toward the end of the movie, “Dad saw a way out; I guess you did too” in what we understand a bit later is an envious statement), but for those of us who at times haven’t been able to see the sunshine in front of our faces because of the clouds clustered in our eyes, I’d say that we’ve learned all we need to know about Maggie’s despair.  At the end of our story (again, you know I’m a born spoiler; either live with it or bail out) Maggie tries again to kill herself, this time by tying weights to her body and jumping in the pool where her scuba lessons led to some dry-land-immersion of instructor Billy’s (Boyd Holbrook) “tube” into her “depths.”  She frantically changes her mind once she’s under water, but the anchor is too heavy, the knots too secure for escape when suddenly Milo appears to rescue her (even though he’d left town on a bus, then got a text from her while traveling, repeating part of his intended farewell message:  “See you later”), with no explanation as to how he got back to Nyack so quickly, how he knew when and where she’d make the attempt, etc. (I know nothing substantial about siblings, let alone twins, so maybe they’ve got some sort of psychic connection; if so, fine, but for now this is another plot-related-reason why I can’t go to a full 4-stars on what’s otherwise a very moving, engaging cinematic experience).  This scene concludes with a nice flashback of the twins as kids in a pool playing with their little brightly-colored skeleton dolls as a reminder of the emotional bond they’re always shared, setting us up for the remaining pre-credits shots.

By now, even my critical critic colleague would understand Maggie's despair, given that a carefully-calculated-remark by Milo leads Lance to find the birth-control-pills, bringing on the tearful admission from Maggie to him about all of her indiscretions, and his abrupt departure (presumably never to return, but, like Mom’s brief entry and exit, any explanation of future familial connections with the Skeleton siblings will have to be decided by you during post-screening-discussions), but we are left with Maggie and Milo seemingly going it together in Nyack with a new set of goldfish for him (a running situation—not necessarily a joke—is how her previous attempts to restart an aquarium for him had failed).  The conclusion could certainly be seen as a bit melodramatic, just as the traumas inflicted on these long-ago-little-children by their parents’ actions are glossed over a bit too quickly, but those are relatively minor flaws within a much more successful exploration of how ability and potential aren’t always enough to offset the nagging sense of failure that can confront, sometimes overwhelm any of us.  It’s pure chance that The Skeleton Twins was released within the time of Robin Williams’ heavily-lamented-departure, but maybe it will help underscore what’s been written about so much in the passing weeks about the individual complexities that push one person to take his or her life when another pushes back against the seemingly-inevitable-obsession, giving all of us insight into the fragile balance that defines every one of us, no matter what we may seem to others, even to the ones who think they know us best.  Wiig and Hader do a marvelous job of expressing such complexities, with him showing that a sympathetic gay portrayal doesn’t have to incorporate any of the silliness that defined his famous Stefan and that he’s got great potential as a dramatic actor as well as a great comic (paralleling the success of his former SNL mate, Will Forte, so excellent last year in Nebraska [Alexander Payne; review in our December 5, 2013 posting]); similarly, I again offer praise for Burrell for the same reasons, a well-established funnyman now perfectly portraying the tensions and inabilities that prevent him from being what he wants to “reform” himself into, even as his passions call out for another choice.  Finally, I don’t want to forget the easy-going but solid presence of Luke Wilson who gives us a character in Lance who’s open, supportive, a bit dim in overall wattage, yet still able to slip in effectively sly humor just as with his more-anticipated-comedic castmates.  Johnson had a compelling story to tell here, enhanced greatly by the talent he recruited to deliver it, well worth you time to see soon or whenever you can find it.

But, if what you really need is a dysfunctional family on steroids yet presented with a lot more raucous laughs, then you might prefer This Is Where I Leave You, which, unlike the Skeletons’ story, is based on a book of the same title as the movie (by Jonathan Tropper, who adapted his own work into the screenplay) which provides both the strength and weakness of this similar story about siblings in conflict but now focused on past-mutual-grievances-slouching-into-the-present rather than the inclination for those shared wrongs to lead any of them toward termination.  The strength of this book-based-movie is that it has a multitude of individuals and situations to entertain you (as well as show interfamilial-interactions that will also seem oh-so-familiar, as with the Skeletons) so that the 103 min. running time will never lag (actually, it’s a well-compressed plot given how many storylines are being juggled, yet it exists on screen for only 10 min. longer than the much more intimate tale of The Skeleton Twins), but the corresponding weakness is that there’s so much going on in what is mostly a mere week’s time that it gets collectively overwhelming and tiring, even in the reasonable duration it will take you to absorb it.  It’s not clear how much time has passed since the opening scenes of Judd and Wade in a typical high-energy-day at the radio station, followed by Judd’s surprise to find Wade’s energy also being shared with Quinn, but when the main story picks up again they’re divorced, he’s jobless, and Dad has just died so he comes home to be with Mom, his siblings, and their various significant others.  What surprises them all is that Mom Hillary insists that they sit shiva for 7 days (the traditional Jewish period of mourning for a close family member; interesting to me that even though this term comes from the Hebrew word for “seven” it’s the same [from a Sanskrit root] as the name of the Hindu god of necessary destruction [to allow new beginnings], providing a likely unintended link between 2 very different religious traditions [although the alternate spelling of "shivah" for the mourning ritual, taken directly from the original Hebrew, negates that entirely, so I won't try to get too cosmic on you here), even though Dad was an atheist and Mom’s not Jewish.  Anyway, they do it which provides the necessary plot situation to force them all together, old antagonisms to arise, and new complications to enter so that Hillary is about the only one with a moment’s peace, given that, like the Skeletons’ (Earth) Momma Judy, she’s no favorite of her children because she wrote a famous psychology book on child-raising, Cradle and All, that revealed all of their secret habits and hang-ups, yet she sees no reason why they should be upset.

In the process, we find that Wendy has a miserable marriage to Barry Weissman (Aaron Lazar), a preoccupied businessman who knows his own faults (but we see little of him, probably good given that we have so many others to keep up with already), although that hasn’t impacted their very young son Cole (Cade Lappin) who joyfully carries his potty around, proudly announcing each “triumph” he produces; Paul is horrified that Phillip wants in on the family business which has now fallen to him, just as he’s being worn down by Annie (who’s so desperate for a child that she’s willing to believe that Paul is sterile so she tries to “manhandle” Judd in order to get inseminated); Phillip is trying to act more responsibly by courting Tracy (but that doesn’t keep him from probably cheating on her with old flings during the ritual week); Penny seems available to rekindle with Judd (who, if I got this right, left her for Annie before he married Quinn—although Phillip and Annie also had linkage that predates her marriage to Paul so I guess she’s almost like an incestuous sister to all of them) but then Quinn shows up pregnant (it’s Judd’s because Wade truly is sterile somehow [after awhile I quite trying to keep up with all the details]), followed by Wade who wants Quinn, although she now prefers Judd; and, to cap it all off, not only do we get an abundance of jokes about Hillary’s well-proportioned boob job (or well-protruding, depending on your preference in breast sizes) but also we find right at the end that she’s evolved to lesbianism over the years so that she and neighbor Linda were an item even before Mort died (but he accepted it; no one in this bunch would commit suicide due to their problems because that would deprive them of the opportunity to hassle or haggle with the others, apparently the favorite sport of the sporting-goods-Altmans—including Wendy’s insistence at revealing Judd’s divorce, which he’s been trying to hide under cover of a bulging disc problem to explain Quinn’s absence from this ritual seemingly designed more to generate arguments than to pay respect to Mort).  Still, Hillary’s the most grounded of all of them (she should probably run up to that Insight Retreat at Woodstock to pass on some of her “serenity now” to Skeleton Mom Judy [more TV references; this is from Seinfeld, but if it's not familiar you can watch excerpts from the episode]), as she’s quite settled in her acceptance of her sexual openness, her various children’s problems, and her intention that all of them will eventually find the sort of inner peace that she assumes radiates from her (although it took lying about the shiva being Mort’s last wish in order to keep her brood at home long enough to finally reveal her relationship with Linda so she still has her own hang-ups as well).

 Some people (including a very verbal colleague of mine—justifiably so, given his solid credentials within the film discipline) still castigate Fonda as “Hanoi Jane” for her antagonism toward the American involvement in the Vietnam War many decades ago (for anyone who still holds that opinion, go ahead and include me in your rejections because I also didn’t support that war [although I respected the soldiers who had to fight it]; I didn’t support the Viet Cong nor Hanoi either, although I’d have moved to Canada then—rather than just vacationing there now—before being shipped out to Saigon, with all due respect to my high-school-classmates and the thousands of others who did, especially those who paid the ultimate price, as they accepted a destiny that I saw as part of an unacceptable cause), but despite all of the parodic public images of her over the years she seems as relaxed and confident on screen now as does her character (and the others she so successfully played in her younger career days, back when she won Best Actress Oscars for Klute [Alan J. Pakula, 1971] and Coming Home [Hal Ashby, 1979]), adding a somewhat calming presence to the chaos around her before adding her own explosion to the family fireworks.

When all of the dust has settled in This Is Where I Leave You, Hillary and Linda are happily “out,” Paul and Annie seem on the road to parenthood with Paul accepting Phillip as a tentative partner in the family store, Wendy’s probably going to have to settle for happiness with her 2 kids rather than any lasting satisfaction with Barry (although she did finally have a nice one-nighter with Horry), Phillip’s on his own to figure out his motivations as Tracy decides to be honest and hit the road, and Judd’s on the road for 6 months himself in an attempt to loosen up his regimented life (symbolically at the end taking the turn off to Maine—representing the “unknown”—rather than returning to NYC) before coming back to Penny.  Although this is about an extended family rather than a bunch of college friends having a reunion as part of a funeral (and there’s no Motown or Rolling Stones on the soundtrack), I couldn’t help but think how many aspects of this movie reminded me of characters and situations in The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983) including a scene where Phillip, Judd, and finally Paul sneak out of the memorial service for Mort at the synagogue to share a couple of joints that Judd found in Mort’s old jacket.  Again, not exact circumstances but similar attitudes to what many consider an American classic (along with being an early screen presence of Kevin Costner—to get us all the way back to Draft Day from the start of this very-extended review [I’ll be shorter next time, I promise; I just had a lot to unload after a 5-week-haitus]—although his flashbacks as that story’s suicide-chooser, Alex, were deleted so all we see are hands in the casket), which I can’t help but wonder if it’s an uncredited influence on Tropper, especially if the ... Leave You book closely mirrors what we see on screen (without reading the book and watching The Big Chill again I’ll likely never find out but if you’re interested here’s an interview with Tropper in which he discusses his adaptation).

I enjoyed This Is Where I Leave You (although not quite as much as The Skeleton Twins, despite their many similarities), agree that it has some well-constructed, well-delivered belly laughs, and speaks effectively to the normal instability of family life along with the bonding that also occurs such as with Hillary explaining that Mort never wanted any big success beyond simply loving his kids (as well as the movie having some great cinematic touches like when Quinn tries to explain her infidelity to Judd but her voice drops out of the soundtrack as he just can’t listen to whatever she’s saying or when Wendy comes to Mom for comfort but has to carefully place her hug so as to not be distracted by a handful of implanted silicon); however, when it’s all over I just feel like it was too much plot, too much distraction from any central core, too much attempt to make the Altmans feel wacky, distraught, yet ultimately loveable.  Probably in the book all of this drama plays out at a more digestible pace, but I’ll just leave that to speculation as I leave you with my final musical metaphor, this one also cribbed right from the screen source, Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time,” at (from the 1984 She’s So Unusual album) which becomes Judd and Penny’s song after 2 scenes where they reconnect at the local ice rink and works more honestly than most of the stories in this overloaded movie collage of conflicts because the original video ends with the singer leaving her man (for whatever reason; it's not that clear to me from the footage), as Tracy had the sense to do with Phillip, rather than all of the easy resolutions found by the rest of the Altman family (with the easiest one of all being Judd and Quinn agreeing to happily raise their child even though divorced, Wade suddenly dropping out of the picture after admitting his inadequacies, and Penny willingly waiting for Judd to return in 6 months assuming he’s gotten his now-freewheeling-head together by then—all of which would be great for all concerned if it plays out better in hopeful fiction than in likely real life), but this fiction was clearly meant to inspire rather than depress so I wish them all the best and—despite my noted reservations—recommend this movie for its insightful humor as long as you’re not too tired when you watch it or you might not be able to stand the stressful pace of all the interlocking storylines racing to their neat conclusions.

Speaking of conclusions, believe it or not I’ve finally reached mine, so this is where I leave you, bidding au revoir until next time.  (See, I did pick up a little French in Quebec City, although I send my great thanks to all those friendly folks who offered me the English often missing from traffic signs and menus in an otherwise bilingual country—although in all fairness I didn’t see a lot of French in the English-speaking areas either, but that's all for my wonderful northern neighbors to work out among themselves; Quebec's capital is a beautiful place, which I highly recommend a visit to, along with the Canadian Atlantic provinces, a vacation you’ll long pleasantly remember.)

If you’d like to know more about The Skeleton Twins here are some suggested links: (5:10 interview with actors Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader)

If you’d like to know more about This Is When I Leave You here are some suggested links: (2:58 commentary from author Jonathan Tropper about the adaptation of his book into the movie, along with brief comments from some of the actors; uses much of the same trailer just above but with some additional movie footage)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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