No matter what else I may write here, I do not want you coming away from this believing that Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (1983) and Shawn Levy's This is Where I Leave You (2014) are the same movie. OK -- they both involve the reunion of a group of 30-somethings who were once close and have now drifted apart. Both movies use the death of another member of the group as the catalyst for said reunion. Both movies isolate the group in house. Both movies involve infidelity and old flames. One of the characters is desperate to get pregnant and turns to someone other than her husband. At some point in the middle, they get high.
But they are by no means the same movie. After all, one of them has Jane Fonda.
But even though they are not the exact same, you've got to admit they are pretty damn similar. And so, they provide a good opportunity to try and figure out what makes one movie better than another. We don't really have a scientific method for measuring art, and thank god for that. We do have certain meta-scores which are commonplace in the on-line era and so you can bolster an argument for The Big Chill's superiority by pointing out the relative scores from IMDB (Chill - 7.2; Leave - 6.6) or Rotten Tomatoes (Chill - 68 percent; Leave - 43 percent). But that doesn't address the "why." What is about The Big Chill that makes it better than the very similar This is Where I Leave You?
There are any number of specific moments that make me prefer the older movie. I think Lawrence Kasdan, at least at that point in his career, was a more observant and witty writer than Jonathan Tropper (of Banshee fame) is at this point in his career. Less than one day after seeing This is Where I Leave You, I do not recall a single line of dialogue. Thirty years after seeing The Big Chill, I can remember a dozen, including Jeff Goldblum's exchange comparing rationalizations with sex (with the conclusion that rationalization is far more important to survival) and William Hurt's devastating analysis of the old college gang's friendship, beginning with "a long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time; you don't know anything about me."
And then there's the music. The Big Chill had an epic soundtrack. This is Where I Leave You -- not so much.
There are several broader structural decisions that come into play here as well. There's an old axiom in the world of drama which states that month is better than a year, a week is better than a month, and a day is better than a week. This dates back to Aristotle's unities and it has pretty much been borne out over the past two thousand years. (Though it doesn't mean that real time movies like Locke or Quarantine, which take place over a couple hours, are the best movies ever.) And so, I greatly prefer The Big Chill's weekend to This is Where I Leave You's week. The fact is, neither movie has a great deal of forward dramatic momentum and both are prone to feel a bit long. Leave You feels longer.
I also think Tropper makes a bad decision by including the character Horry. Horry, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a former love of one of the returning characters, Wendy (Tina Fey). Many years ago, they were in a car crash which left Horry "brain damaged" -- a fact which is repeated several times during the movie. Now Wendy is trapped in a bad marriage and feeling very guilty about having abandoned Horry after the accident. Horry barely seems to be a character. He seems to be an emblem for past pain and regret. An issue to come to terms with. To me, it feels like a cheap stab at pathos in what really is not a terribly serious movie. The character feels out of place.
This may signal the biggest take-away from a 2014 version of The Big Chill. The genuine pain and challenge and sadness of growing up are more flippant and less genuine than they were in 1983. Compare the marijuana scenes: in The Big Chill, it's a scene of self-reflection. In This is Where I Leave You, it's slapstick. Or compare the two fuck-up characters (yes, that's another similarity -- they both present prodigals who are there to stir the pot): William Hurt's Nick is a profoundly intelligent asshole who constantly challenges the prevailing self-congratulatory liberal mantra that all his friends share. Adam Driver's Phillip is mostly a clown. I admit I am being too hard on Philip since he does has some good, and even profound moments, but the entire conception of the character is comic.
That is probably the ultimate conclusion. This is Where I Leave You opts for comic avoidance in place of admittedly incomplete understanding. It presents minor characters like new-age Rabbi Grodner (aka Boner) and Dax Shepard's cartoonish lout Wade for mostly comic relief. There are no comparable characters in The Big Chill. It resolves its serious moments with mostly-comic interruptions, such as the conflict between brothers Judd and Paul, which develops into a slapstick chase/fight and is ultimately resolved by their mother's comic revelation of her lesbianism. It has great fun with mother Jane Fonda's enormously pumped-up breasts.
The point about how Tropper and Levy resolve the fight scene is crucial. In This is Where I Leave You, moments are constantly being interrupted. Usually it is a comic interruption. Occasionally it has more gravitas. Interruption is a classic dramatic device and its mere presence is by no means a problem. But in This is Where I Leave You, we never seem to get to that moment where the interruptions stop and the real issues get hammered out one way or another. Even the climax of the main plot, involving Jason Bateman's Judd and Rose Byrne's Penny, ends with the characters tabling their relationship. They will revisit it in six months.
Am I wrong to think of the U.S. Congress at moments like this? Am I wrong to think of the way we smugly ignore serious realities (take your pick -- climate change, income inequality, health care, debt or religious radicalism) by watching news programs which have morphed into entertainment vehicles without anyone seeming to care?
One of the very first things we see in This is Where I Leave You is Shepard's character screaming at callers on his "Man Up" radio program. It's hard not to find irony in that. This is Where I Leave, in a softer and more tolerant way, essentially does the same thing. It blots out its more serious undercurrents with fairly good, but largely uneven, humor. The weird thing is, The Big Chill, thirty years earlier, managed to be both more serious and funnier. And that is at least one reason why it is better.