At several points in This Is Where I Leave You, Wendy Altman (Tina Fey) responds to another character’s emotional outburst by grabbing him or her by the upper arm and giving a firm, but not-too-firm squeeze. It might be the closet thing to a consistent character trait one finds in this loose collection of screenwriter’s tics. The movie is flagrantly opportunistic in the way it deploys Fey. She’s impulsive, reserved, adolescent, and motherly, her character determined by whatever blunt emotional effect the filmmakers want to achieve at that moment. (She’s still more plausible than the therapist played by Connie Britton.) If Wendy at all resembles a person, that’s probably because Fey’s screen presence carries so many associations from years of being on TV. Had an unknown actress played the character, viewers might have wondered if she was supposed to be playing two or three different people.
The bicep-grabbing bit is a shrewd bit of shorthand, hinting at an intimate familiarity with the other person as well as a tough-love sympathy for them. (“Be strong, brother, I’m here with you.”) It cues the audience to like Wendy, not because of anything else she’s done in the movie so much as the fact that she’s played by Fey and Fey’s likable. Also, since Fey often makes these gestures just before the end of the shot, they feel a bit like outtakes of Fey breaking character. I’m not sure who shoulders the responsibility here. Does the gesture originate with Jonathan Tropper’s script? Did Shawn Levy direct Fey to move her arm this way, or did the actress improvise it on set? Did the editor just forget to take out those few seconds? It’s remarkable how many people can be involved in the creation of five-to-ten seconds of phony sentiment.