Lost Boys on Film: This Is Where I Leave You

this is where i leave you tropper

Wondering what happens to lost boys when they grow up? Jonathan Tropper will tell you. The men in his stories are broken in such realistic ways that you can’t help but recognize them as your friends, or your brother, or your dad. (Or yourself.) So casting Jason Bateman in the film adaptation of Tropper’s novel This Is Where I Leave You is pretty genius — after all, he has lots of experience playing a frustrated man suffering from arrested development. Literally.

Last night, Mollie, Carla Jean and I listened as Tropper, director Shawn Levy, Bateman and Tina Fey (!!!) talked about their movie. They even showed us a preview, because we’re cool like that. (Also, you know, it was included with our conference tickets.) I’m a huge fan of Tropper’s work, and I was skeptical when I heard about a movie adaptation of his nuanced, character-driven books. But if anyone can pull it off, it’s this team — they settled any doubts I might’ve had at the screening last night.

For one thing, Tropper himself wrote the screenplay. It’s incredibly rare for authors to adapt their own work well, but from what we saw last night, he’s done it. The format of the panel was fantastic — Tropper would read a passage from his book, and then we’d watch the same scene on film. Then the actors, director and Tropper himself talked about what they changed about the scene and why. It was obvious that they all were committed to communicating the heart of the book as closely as possible. “A lot of what I wanted to do was make the movie even more faithful to the book,” Levy said. The book has heavy subject matter, but it’s also very funny — and from the previews we saw yesterday, the film is, too. “Real life is never just serious,” Fey said. It was fantastic to hear the book get just as many laughs as the same material on film. That kind of humor is tough to pull off in prose, but Tropper nails it.

Tropper’s male characters are always kind of down-on-their-luck, but Judd, the main character in This Is Where I Leave You, has had a run of particularly bad run: His wife left him for his boss, and his father dies, requesting that the family sit Shiva for him. Judd has earned the right to wallow, but instead he’s forced into bonding with family whose ties have snapped or frayed. Tropper writes this story so authentically and so beautifully. This is a family that’s forgotten how to talk together, much less live together, and watching them try is just as awkward and emotionally palatable as forced family gatherings are in reality. Tropper’s story is emotionally true, and it’s funny enough to get us through the tragedy and heartbreak of recreating old bonds — just like real families do. “We never felt like we had to push for the funny or the laughs,” Bateman told us. “We kind of played it for the reality of the feeling … [Tropper] creates these kind of emotionally vulnerable situations which is kind of the breeding ground for comedy anyway.”

Summing up the movie’s tone, Bateman said that it’s not flashy like a high-budget adventure, but it’s just a great story that’s well-told. “It’s the stuff we go to the movies for,” he said. It’s the stuff we read books for, too. I’m so glad Tropper’s work is set up to find more of an audience with the release of this movie, because it deserves it. As Levy said, “[he writes] about people and experiences that are relatable even though they’re specific.” Plus, having so many celebrities in a movie helps to sell the book, too, and I selfishly like that because it simplifies my bookseller sales pitch. Now, instead of “Oh-my-gosh-it’s-so-fantastic-and-have-you-read-his-other-books-they’re-great,” I can just say, “Tina Fey likes it.” For most people, that’s enough.

Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books in Birmingham, Alabama. This week, she’s attending Book Expo America (BEA 2014) in New York.



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