Turning Mourning Into Comedy: Jason Bateman and Tina Fey Sit Shiva, Hollywood Style

The Jewish mourning ritual has rarely featured in Hollywood movies, but new comedy-drama 'This is Where I Leave You’ places it at the heart of events. Writer Jonathan Tropper explains why.

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“Seven days? I don’t know if you’re gonna make it,” one woman says to the four grown Altman children who have come home to sit shiva for their father in “This is Where I Leave You,” the star-studded new film featuring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda and Adam Driver, based on Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 novel of the same name.

They argue if they can do five, or maybe three. “Seven!” says the good looking, young Reform-style rabbi helping them understand the ritual. “In Hebrew, shiva means seven,” he says.

“He just wanted his kids under one roof,” adds their mother (Fonda, sporting prosthetic boobs) regarding their father’s last request. “So for the next seven days, you are all grounded.”

Many families do not weather the intense mourning period well, but throw in four very different siblings – including the morose Judd (Bateman), who just discovered his wife is cheating on him; the man-child Phillip (Driver), who is engaged to his therapist; and the caustic sister Wendy (Fey), whose true love lives across the street – not to mention their oversharer mom intent on publicizing their peccadilloes in her book, and you have a week full of obnoxious jabs and brawling and sneaking around just to get a break from the claustrophobic shiva house, teeming with food, family and community.

“This is Where I Leave You” might be the first time the Jewish ritual of mourning has been splayed out so grandly in popular culture. Not that Tropper, the novelist-screenwriter-exec producer behind “Leave,” ever believed a film about this topic would catch Warner Bros.’ interest.

“Shiva would be a tough sell to any studio,” Tropper, 44, tells Haaretz. “But a quiet novel about a family coming together when they’re all falling apart? It’s not what you think of as studio fare these days.”

Thrown for a loop

The novelist, known for his angst-ridden male narrators looking for love and meaning in life, was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, and he infuses his books with a latent type of Judaism that somehow is all-American – a character trait more than a religion.

“Both the book and film is about a family that hasn’t identified Jewishly and are thrown for a loop when they’re asked to sit shiva,” he says. “There is a universality to it.”

But there’s also specificity to it, with the many Jewish references that other films tend to screw up (especially when it comes to religious Jews – such as in “A Price Above Rubies” and “A Stranger Among Us”). There’s the enthusiastic rabbi trying to enthrall his congregation with “Can I get a ‘Shabbat shalom’?” and “What do you say we get this party started?”; the Hebrew school classroom upstairs (where the brothers get stoned and set off the fire alarm) which has a Hebrew vowel lesson on the blackboard; and the low, uncomfortable chairs the Altmans awkwardly sit on – which Tropper added to the set, even though usually only the Orthodox use them during mourning.

“I thought that would be a great detail to drive home the fact that they’re doing something different than sitting on couches all day,” he said, also crediting his director, Shawn Levy (“Night at The Museum,” “Date Night”) – a Canadian Jew “from a pretty strong background” – with paying attention to those particulars.

Not that they had to worry about too many details, the family being so secular and all. “Because this is an unaffiliated family, we had a free pass. This is not a family that has to get things right,” Tropper notes. (The film’s fun and pathos comes from how many things they get wrong – but still stick together. “You guys are idiots, but you’re my idiots,” Fey’s character says to her brothers.)

They also had a free pass because only the father is Jewish, Jane Fonda’s mother character is not (in the book, the mother’s religion isn’t spelled out). “Even before we cast Jane [Fonda], it would make sense that they’re half Jewish; it would further their sense of alienation and their sense of surprise,” Tropper says about their mother forcing them to follow the religious ritual. “And obviously once we cast Jane, there’s no way anyone would see her as a Jewish mom.”

Tropper didn’t change all that much from the book – especially Jewishly. “A lot of people suspect that I’d have gotten pressure from either the studio or the producer, but I think once you buy into the concept that these people are sitting shiva, it’s pretty ridiculous to ask them to tone down the Jewishness,” he explains.

Although Tropper finds the act of turning his books into screenplays difficult (“It’s like doing surgery on your own child – but you’re not necessarily going to trust anyone else to do it”), he’s already adapted another of his novels – his most Jewish one to date. “One Last Thing Before I Go” (published in 2012) is about a man who declines heart-saving surgery because his life isn’t going as well as he’d hoped, until his father, a rabbi, takes him to all the Jewish life cycle events – bris, bar mitzvah, wedding, etc. – to convince him to change his mind. The film is in development, with names such as JJ Abrams (producing), Mike Nichols (directing), Johnny Depp and Dakota Fanning rumored to be attached.

But Tropper has that Jewish – or writer’s – nervousness that it’s not good to talk about projects in development, lest they don’t happen. (He just wrapped the third season of his Cinemax show “Banshee,” an American crime-drama, and signed on to write the Steve Carell cancer drama “The Priority List.”) “You never know. None of it’s real until it’s done,” he says.

Take this movie, for example. “You know there were a lot of points in the five years on working on this where it looked like it was going to fall apart – it actually did fall apart once or twice,” Tropper says, crediting two dogged producers for not letting it die. “I kind of had this ridiculous idea we were still going to get there.”

“This is Where I Leave You” opens in U.S. theaters on September 19 and in Israel later this fall.

AP
Jessica Miglio
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