Anatomy of a Script: This Is Where I Leave You
The release of Warner Bros. This Is Where I Leave You feels like something of an event. Not because the film is necessarily very good, mind you, but because it is proof that major studios…and not just specialty divisions thereof like Sony Pictures Classics or the now-defunct Warner Independent (not to mention shuttered shingles like FilmDistrict)…can and still do occasionally develop and release dramas. It really is true!
It’s sad that the release of a studio-backed, star-driven, R-rated drama for grownups now feels about as exotic as would a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza performed with dinosaurs in the outposts of space (where no one can hear you applaud), but it does. Because, lest we forget, this is the era where comic book and young adult tripe adaptations, franchise reboots, adaptations of iconic TV series into features and of iconic features into TV series reign supreme. This is the era where, at least in the big boys’ sandbox, exploiting IPs and harvesting their built-in audiences matters more than originality, voice, emotional resonance or even just general quality. This is the era where even franchises that were originally designed for adults are rejiggered for younger (and supposedly more hip and important) crowds at the expense of alienating their core fan bases. Looking at you Expendables 3.
To be fair, This Is Where I Leave You isn’t an original property; it’s adapted by UTA-repped Banshee co-creator Jonathan Tropper from his best-selling novel. But the fact that it got made—even at a tight purported budget of $20 million—does seem like a minor miracle. The question is why did this one get made? Why did it attract an expansive A-list cast and a polished and seasoned—if not gushingly heralded—director of fluffy, nonthreatening and inoffensive studio fare like The Night At The Museum franchise and Real Steel? Is the script really that good? Let’s take a look.
SPOILER ALERT—What follows from here is a complete breakdown of the script for This Is Where I Leave You.
Here’s the premise: a troubled man returns home for his father’s funeral and must reunite with his estranged and/or left-behind siblings/relatives/acquaintances. If that basic logline sounds familiar, that’s because it is; we’ve seen this movie before. It was called Garden State. It was also called Elizabethtown. It was also called The Big Chill. It was also called Eulogy. It was also called Rachel Getting Married. When The Judge opens next month—also courtesy of Warner Bros., good job fellas!—we’ll be seeing it again.
The homecoming trope is quite possibly the most pervasive trope in the history of narrative. Why? Because it’s so damn relatable. Almost everyone has or has had a hometown, and almost everyone has or has had a love/hate relationship with it; ditto for families. Where we grow up and whom we grow up with plays a vital role in shaping who we become. So naturally, any narrative that forces a protagonist (and by extension, us) to come home and reflect on his or her past in a concentrated emotional bubble has an almost inherent chance of appealing to massive and cross-cultural audiences, at least conceptually speaking.
Thus, right off the bat, This Is Where I Leave You engages as a screenplay because it features a relatable premise. That’s one of the key reasons it got made: the powers that be recognized the premise and knew on a fundamental level that they could define it and sell it at large to multiple audiences in multiple markets. And they knew that within reading five pages of it; they saw the trailer in their heads.
Any successful screenplay has that same quality, that total and immediate clarity in terms of announcing loud and clear from page 1 “this is what I am, and this is why you should care.” That is the first and perhaps most paramount lesson that This Is Where I Leave You teaches us: you don’t have to be original; you just have to be relatable. You can have the most convoluted or esoteric plot you can possibly think of (looking at you Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Two Jakes), but first you have to have a relatable premise to hook us in.
People often conflate premise and plot but really they’re two different things; plot speaks to specific story beats while premise speaks to a basic emotional hook. An emotional hook is a reason for an audience to care. An emotional hook hooks us precisely by being relatable; we become hooked because we recognize the core emotional experience being showcased by the screenplay and we relate to it. Why? Because some version of it happened to us in our own lives and we’re attracted—either consciously or subconsciously—to the idea of ruminating on those emotions and reliving that experience vicariously through someone else’s journey. That way, we get to cathartically have the laughs and go through the pain without really going through the pain. Jonathan Tropper’s screenplay gets this. It offers a relatable general premise and it specifically hooks us with dual inciting incidents in the first five pages.
The opening establishes protagonist Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) and, in Chris Vogler parlance, his Ordinary World. We learn that Judd is a dedicated radio show producer, a blue-collar everyman. Notice that he isn’t a radio star, he’s the behind-the-scenes guy that makes the star look good—and he brings his coworker coffee. And he’s trying to get home early with a cake to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Boom! We know who this guy is, and we like him. And now that Tropper makes us like Judd, he doesn’t waste any time in doing exactly what he’s supposed to do: he turns on the pain.
Judd comes home unannounced with the cake and finds his wife Quinn vigorously…and rigorously…plonking Wade Beaufort (Dax Shephard), the shock jock whose show he produces. How many times have we seen not only this plot point but also this plot point used as an inciting incident? It’s one of the most trodden—some would say hackneyed—plot points in existence. But again, the reason it’s so common is that it works; betrayal is an instant emotional hook.
The very next scene? Judd gets a call from his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) telling him that their father has just died. It’s a one-two punch of conflict, and the hits just keep on coming. It’s important to note at this point too that the story stays with Judd. The marketing of this movie really sells the ensemble cast. Structurally speaking, though, if the script were a true ensemble, after dropping the catalyst of the father dying, the story would track all of the other characters in separate vignettes before bringing them all together for The Event, the funeral. Generally speaking, ensembles that deal with a specific set of people coming together from disparate corners to unite in one goal/venue are built by presenting everyone separately before bringing them together—the parts before the whole. Think of pretty much any heist movie you ever saw, that’s the modus operandi. This Is Where I Leave You doesn’t do that; it stays with its protagonist and then introduces us to the rich supporting cast via Judd’s interactions with them.
Because Act I is the setup, after the funeral sets the stage, we meet every principal character and get clued in to their principal conflicts: Wendy is a devoted but harried mom stuck in a loveless marriage with a husband who makes love to his Bluetooth rather than to her…and she has unfinished business with the (mildly) mentally disabled neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant) that lives opposite her childhood home; Judd’s big brother Paul (Corey Stoll) wants sole ownership of his late father’s store and is facing increasing pressure and frustration at his inability to knock up his baby crazy wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn)…while still being jealous of the fact that she used to date Judd; and Judd’s baby brother Phillip (Adam Driver) shows up late to the funeral blasting wildly inappropriate music in a Porsche that isn’t his, thus economically establishing him as the black sheep and wild child of the family; and their celebrated memoirist mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) plays comic relief by flaunting her newly-enhanced breasts and waxing poetically about her late husband’s sexual prowess.
Judd also just happens to run into Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), the quirky, anxiety med-popping Girl Who Stayed, and the sparks fly. We also meet Phillip’s older girlfriend Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton), who used to be his psychologist before deciding to sleep with him. The age difference is designed to magnify Phillip’s overarching conflict: he’s still a boy who has refused to grow up and take responsibility for any of his choices.
So there you have it. All of those grounding elements are rattled off in Act I. What becomes immediately apparent about this back-to-back setup is that the funeral, though dramatized with conviction, is really just a catalyst used to bring together an estranged family. The same can be said about Hillary’s insistence that the family spend a week in the house sitting shiva—the Jewish ritual of morning—supposedly in concordance with the dead patriarch’s final wish; it’s just a ticking clock obstacle put in place to trap the family together. If that construct didn’t exist, then everyone could just retreat to their separate corners as soon as any of the myriad conflicts and sub-conflicts started to rear their ugly heads. In the case of This Is Where I Leave You, these external obstacles are transparent and feel imposed on the narrative, but in terms of the effect, they do work to a T.
Because this is a character-driven drama rather than a high-concept or plot-driven narrative, once all of the setup is done, the script settles into a very simple rhythm; it simply starts working all of the conflicts and sub-conflicts that it has broadly established. Everyone acts exactly how we expect them to. Paul acts standoffish about the store, harping on the fact that since he has been running it up until now, all of the other siblings should allow him to buy out their shares. Alice continues to stick herself with fertility treatment injections and fawn over any baby in sight; Wendy continues to argue with her husband and pine for Horry; Hillary continues to do her best to open all of her children up emotionally and make them rediscover how much they need/love each other; Phillip continues to pretend that he has grown up in front of Tracy and his family while simultaneously acting like a child and making eyes at ex-girlfriends; and Judd continues to duck near-constant calls from Quinn.
New sub-conflicts are introduced for Judd: we learn that only Wendy knows about his in-the-works divorce from Quinn and that Judd is actively trying to keep it a secret; and we see Judd continue to suss out the potential for new romance with Penny. Given all of these distinct—but interconnected—sources of conflict, for the first half of Act II the script essentially writes itself. It simply cycles through these conflicts one by one and tonally strives to milk them for both comedy and drama a la the seriocomic canons of James L. Brooks/Cameron Crowe/Billy Wilder. It really doesn’t seem to matter what order these sub-conflicts are worked; you could shuffle virtually all of the scenes in the first half of Act II and the structure would still hold.
This all changes when the midpoint comes into play: Quinn shows up unannounced and takes Judd by surprise. Turns out she was constantly calling him for a reason: she’s pregnant with his baby. That turn effectively bisects Act II and means that the second half of the act cannot coast along like the first half did. This new plot point throws a wrench into Judd’s already unhappy life. It threatens his new romance with Penny. It forces him to think about his marriage and if he can and should forgive Quinn for the sake of their unborn child. It makes Alice simmer with jealousy and hurt and desperation—to the point that she throws herself at Judd, hoping that he’ll take her in a moment of weakness and make her pregnant, as Paul has been unable to, etcetera. The unexpected pregnancy is an ideal midpoint in that it subverts and enhances all of the conflicts that have been established and forces the protagonist to diverge onto a more difficult path on his journey.
From here on out, the script gives us virtually every scene and every moment of catharsis we could possibly want, almost to the point that we begin to resent it for doing so. We get the big speeches, the smiles, the kisses, and the comeuppances. It’s a tricky dynamic: we want the storytellers to take care of our emotional needs but we don’t want to feel coddled at the same time. It’s in finding this dynamic that This Is Where I Leave You stumbles. We get a dramatic all-is-lost 2nd act break when a frightened Quinn interrupts Judd right when he is in a conflict-free moment of romantic bliss with Penny to tell him that she is bleeding and is afraid she is going to miscarry their baby just like she did years earlier. We see Penny’s jaw drop upon learning that Judd is a father-to-be and he didn’t tell her about it, and he has to leave her in the lurch without making his case because the emergency situation calls for it.
We see Judd tend to Quinn and we see them connect in the hospital and we start to think that maybe there is some hope for them…whether we actually want it or not. But when Wade arrives on the scene, the bottom falls out: we realize that Quinn double-dipped and called Judd and Wade. She doesn’t really believe in Judd; she’ll just take any port in the storm. But from here, the script quickly brings us up again by giving us that crowd-pleasing moment we’ve been waiting for where Wade gets his comeuppance. Wendy punches him in the face and tosses off a sassy line, while Judd follows up by sabotaging his dainty sports car. Again, in theory we want these moments, but the risk of giving an audience absolutely everything they want and expect to a T is that your story can start to seem disingenuously manufactured rather than emotionally honest. Emotional honesty is the ultimate currency in a drama; dramas that come across as emotionally honest work and those that don’t become stillborn and invite a special kind of scorn.
To its credit, the script does what the vast majority don't in that it builds in enough time to have a fully distinct and developed third act that crescendos to a resolution, rather than just jumping to one. Every principal character gets some kind of closure and Judd learns his overarching lesson: he needs to stop chasing a perfectly planned, simple and easy life and embrace the mess of the here and now. He needs to live for today, not tomorrow, and to value the relationships in his life...no matter how flawed they may be.
The irony here, though, is that for a narrative that tries so hard to be about emotional honesty and reveling in the true complexities and messiness of life, the story sure ends nice and neatly, with the easy-to-digest clarity of a Cliff Notes tome. It doesn't quite work. Conceptually, the overall effect is right on the money, but the execution feels more than a little on-the-nose. Is there anyone who watched the scene in which Judd confesses to Penny about all the times he has been on the freeway driving back to New York and thought about driving all the way to Maine...but never took the chance...that didn't immediately know that we would end with Judd impromptu swerving to take the exit toward Maine? I would argue that that scene is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull. Then again, others would argue that that ending is pitch-perfect--in terms of both theme and character arc--and an ideal example of setup and payoff. They woudn't necessarily be wrong. But being on-the-nose in a drama is particularly problematic, again because such a value is placed on naturalism and emotional honesty.
It also doesn't help that, to an extent, the script jams so many conflicts into the story that by Act III they start cannibalizing each other. Instead of really focusing in on diligently resolving the meaningful sources, the script piles on new ones. Hillary coming out as a lesbian is dropped like a bomb and played for comedic and shock value effect--like a saucy little cherry on top of the sundae...while the much more meaningful conflict of Wendy's lingering love for Horry is given short shrift.
In terms of cast-able roles, it's easy to see why the script attracted the cast that it did. These are conflict-ridden characters with distinct surface personalities and realized arcs. The cast is impressive and makes sense conceptually; everyone plays roles that are firmly within their wheelhouses. Though Jason Bateman has already had a long and varied career and has shown range in films like The Kingdom and State of Play, he's still arguably most famous for playing the sarcastic straight man trying to hold his wildly dysfunctional family together in Arrested Development. He's essentially doing the exact same thing in This Is Where I Leave You, the only difference is that the tone skews more dramatic and slightly darker (though there are certainly moments of comedy that are as broad as anything in Arrested Development). Jane Fonda playing a freewheeling and slightly nutty guru is, again, not much of a stretch. There's something to be said about casting actors who fit the roles perfectly, but there's also something to be said for casting against the grain in pursuit of a more unusual result.
This Is Where I Leave You gets a lot of things right. It doesn't score points for originality, but the script is dripping with voice and full of opportunities for emotional engagement, courtesy of characters and themes that are recognizable and relatable. What does it mean to grow up? What does it mean to fall in love and out of love? What does it mean to accept your family members and lovers for who they are and can that truly be done? What does it mean to start living what your life actually is versus what you hoped it would be? The script explores all of these ideas and invites us to do the same. Are there too many conflicts? Yes. Are some elements of the execution heavy-handed? Yes. Does the script damage its veracity by trying to inject sustained instances of broad comedy into the grief-marked and soul-searching proceedings? Perhaps, although for some audience members the instances of broad humor will be the highlight of the script.
It's easy to see why This Is Where I Leave You passed muster and got made. Whether or not it reinvents the wheel or hits a home run, scripts like this one are an endangered species at the studio level, so the best thing we can hope for is that the film does good business and encourages more glossy, star-driven feature dramas to be made.