We like to think of This Is Where I Leave You as Judd Foxman's coming-of-age tale. Judd joins the ranks of iconic characters like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate: young men struggling with the transition into adult life.
But wait: there's one important difference between Judd and his predecessors. Judd is a thirty-something man, already well into his adulthood. So why is he still struggling to grow up?
If you've ever seen a Judd Apatow movie (or a comic book movie, for that matter), you've already met one of the 21st century's most love-to-hate-him characters: the man-child. Blame the economy, blame schools, blame technology, blame those pesky women wanting things like the right to vote and work—the fact of the matter is that men these days just don't want to grow up. If you went back to the 1940s, you'd find a bunch of young men getting ready to go to war. These days, you'd find them huddled around a TV screen, passionately debating the respective merits of Batman and Superman.
Okay lol. We can all agree that Batman has the superhero game on lock, right? Right.
In any case, the Man Child has been with us a long time (apparently William Faulkner invented the term?), and here he is in the flesh in Judd Foxman. How is he a man-child? Let us count the ways:
It's not exactly sitting on his mom's couch eating Doritos and playing Skyrim, but it's also not the solid, responsible adulthood that we'd except from solidly middle-aged dude. (Not to mention that a solidly middle-aged dude would never call himself a dude.)
With these emotional and life skills, it's no wonder that Judd's world goes into a tailspin when the two male figures in his life—his dad and his boss—both betray him.
Being a dad is a tough job, and we're not sure Mort Foxman really nailed it. Judd describes him as sarcastic and aloof, saying "Other than Philip, the men in my family never come out and say anything" (7.44). Although we don't get the sense that he was abusive or Judd hated him, the two weren't close; in fact, Judd hardly even visited him when he got sick with terminal cancer.
But that doesn't mean Mort wasn't a big influence in Judd's life. With Mort's death, Judd is forced to reckon with the pressure—and his own impending fatherhood—all by himself. And it's not easy. Just take a look at Judd's recurring dream that he's an amputee.
This dream image really drives the point home. At first, Judd's missing leg seems to just represent the loss of Jen. Then Judd's father enters. He builds him a prosthesis that magically turns into his "real leg" (32.1). They have a long, wordless goodbye, and Judd's father walks out the front door, leaving Judd to become a man on his own terms.
We talk more about this dream in "Symbols," but it sounds to us like Judd wants to turn to his father for advice and support about the difficult job of being a grownup man. At one point, he thinks to himself:
And now I have no wife, no child, no job, no home, or anything else that would point to a life being lived with any success. (8.12)
When you put it like that, Judd's situation sounds pretty grim. In fact, it sounds like he should just be at the beginning of his life rather than halfway through it—the very definition of a man-child. To give him credit, Judd does seem slightly ashamed. He says,
To have nothing when you're twenty is cool, it's expected, but to have nothing when you're halfway to seventy, softening and widening on a daily basis, is something altogether different. (8.12)
So, what's a reluctant middle-aged adolescent to do?
When Judd's dream-dad walks out the door after giving him a "real" leg, Judd finally understands that the way he's been feeling about Jen is about more than an affair or a broken marriage. He realizes that he—like his father—needs to find his own way, to create his own identity. It's not about making mistakes or avoiding them. It's about letting go of control.
We can't be sure where Judd will end up. Will he rekindle his relationship with Jen? Should he rekindle his relationship with Jen? These questions remain unanswered, as they do in all good coming-of-age stories.
After all, the real journey has only just begun.