In late April my grandma died. In early May a solicitor told my parents that such deaths either make or break families.
In our case the solicitor was correct - a story for another time - but realistically she didn’t reveal anything that cinema hasn’t already taught us.
In This Is Where I Leave You, the Altman family patriarch dies and his four children - each estranged in varying degrees of fervour - return to their Long Island family home to sit shiva; Dad’s dying wish.
It’s a relatively familiar plot of course. August Osage County (2014) set this same story in Oklahoma: Dad dies and the daughters return home to grieve alongside a vaguely batty mom. The forthcoming The Judge takes the story to Indiana; Mom dies and Robert Downey Jr goes home to mourn/melee with his crackpot faither. One of my favourite films - Garden State (2004) - tackled similar material in New Jersey.
It’s partly a very American tale exploiting the normalness of kids moving out of state for college and their journeys “home” - to a place where they may not have lived since their teens - being fraught with anguish, disappointment, unfinished business and a procession of friends/relatives/lovers who “stayed behind”. (Young Adult (2011), incidentally, does a fantastic job tackling these themes in small-town Minnesota, albeit without the dead parent).
It’s also a pretty relatable tale; most of us have siblings and the more we have the greater the likelihood of not merely different personalities but also years of entrenched - and probably problematic - family dynamics, tensions and ulcers.
This is, of course, why the major holidays - Christmas and, in North America, Thanksgiving - are so stressful in real life and get such a hijinks-filled run on screen.
My cursory takeaways from the film centered on performances.
Tina Fey dominates in comedy; she’s glorious and hilarious and a captivating screen presence. And she should stick to it. Drama completely washes her out and it’s gut-wrenching to watch.
Abigail Spencer - who played Amantha in Rectify with perfect aplomb - was a severely wasted talent in This Is Where I Leave You playing Bateman’s adulterous wife. Like Fey, she can be luminous. Like Fey, This Is Where I Leave You snuffed her out.
So when my grandma died, my family unsurprisingly, didn’t sit shiva. That said, the day of her death many of us converged at her house and (albeit accidentally) went through some of the shiva rituals of togetherness, storytelling and fond, if fabricated, reminiscence.
Performances aside, the one conundrum that This Is Where I Leave You left me with - and one I only needed to ponder briefly after my grandma’s death - is so now what?
So the Altman siblings had their punch-ons and their ritual airing of grievances. What now? They’ve shared this horrible/beautiful experience. They’ve drank together. They’ve gotten stoned together. They’ve hugged. They’ve “bonded”. And? And? And?
Do they experience lasting change or is estrangement their more natural state?
In August last year Don Tillman, the star of Graeme Simsion’s novel The Rosie Project, used Twitter to comment on an advertisement for a talk I was giving:
Happily, I’d actually read The Rosie Project and for the most part enjoyed it. While I hadn’t actually wondered about how the characters were faring - the book didn’t have that kind of impact on me - nonetheless it surprised me how pleased I was to know that Don was okay: a follow-up that pretty much never, ever comes.
The final episode of Six Feet Under haunts me years on because it gave us something that books and films scarcely ever do. An ending in the most literal, all-loose-ends-tied sense. No, it’s not something the audience should always get, but it’s nevertheless often craved.
In This Is Where I Leave You the members of the Altman family seemed transformed by the seven days they sat shiva together. I’m just left curious however, about the lasting power.
In my experience, such sentiments occur in a bubble that scarcely survives real life.