Does being the child of Hollywood royalty count as an excuse to be discontented with your privileged life? This is one of the many non-problems addressed in the new Reese Witherspoon-led film Home Again, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Hallie Meyers Shyer (who just happens to be the daughter of successful producer Charles Shyer (Private Benjamin, The Parent Trap) and writer-director Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give). So I suppose she’s in a unique position to be able to answer that question.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Witherspoon plays Alice Kinney, daughter of fictional parents—actress Lillian Stewart (Candice Bergen) and acclaimed writer-director John Kinney (David Netto), the latter of whom is only seen in photos and flashbacks, having been dead for many years when the film begins. When we’re introduced to Alice, she’s just turned 40, she’s recently separated from her music-exec husband Austen (Michael Sheen), and she’s raising her two young daughters (Eden Grace Redfield as Rosie, and Lola Flanery as her older sister Isabel) in her late father’s California home, which just happens to have a fully loaded guest house in the back.
While out with friends celebrating her landmark birthday, they meet three 20-something men who’ve just moved to L.A. to work on their first film, having had some success with a short they wish to expand into a feature. Nat Wolff plays budding actor Teddy; former SNL cast member Jon Rudnitsky plays screenwriter George; and the tall, dark and handsome Pico Alexander plays director Harry, who immediately starts flirting with Alice.
Before the night is over, all parties end up at Alice’s spacious house, most of them passing out in the living room while she and Harry attempt to have sex in her bedroom. It never really happens, though, due to his getting violently ill almost as soon as they start kissing. When the harsh light of morning hits, someone lights on the idea that the three youngsters should move into the guest house, having recently been booted from the motel they were calling home. This, of course, gives Alice and Harry a chance to explore their imperfect relationship while the other two creative types get some time to work on their film.
What struck me about Home Again is that it’s not really the comedy it’s being promoted as being. It’s more of a whimsical, lightweight drama with minimal stakes and a great deal of artificial angst. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly spares us the indignity of sifting through the tropes of yet another sickening romantic-comedy. But what does exist certainly doesn’t feel like real life or emotional stakes. More than once, Alice indicates that she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life—a frequent complaint among those who don’t really have to work beyond taking care of their children. Her eldest has anxiety issues, but thankfully writer George is a good listener who encourages her gifts as a writer, and soon that problem more or less vanishes.
Alice also admits she’s one of “those women” who thinks their hobbies can become a career, and after several failed attempts at doing just that, she seems to have settled into becoming an interior decorator, which we know because she’s had business cards made that say she is. Although the first client she lines up (an obnoxious, filthy rich socialite played by Lake Bell), becomes the target of a drunken rant, so who knows how well that career plan is going to go. And when her tentative relationship with Harry gets tangled up with his rising career, it’s not looking like Alice’s life is working out on any front. That, in turn, tees up the perfect time for absentee husband Austen to show up from New York wanting to rekindle their romance and get the family back together.
There’s no getting around the long-time truth that Witherspoon’s pluck and personality makes her the ideal candidate to place at the center of a film like this (or any other film, honestly). But having recently expanded the range of what she’s capable of with work in Wild, Inherent Vice and HBO’s Big Little Lies, it’s hard to watch her step back into a role that might have been considered in her comfort zone 10 or 15 years ago. She’s effectively slumming it by being in this, and nothing about her performance indicates that she’s the least bit interested in being a part of the work. She’s going through the ill-defined motions and bringing no sense of depth or artistic value to this character.
I was only slightly more interested in what the three filmmakers were up to, in their squeaky-clean version of “Entourage.” Their project moves forward with such speed, it’s hard to feel sorry for them and consider them “struggling.” They hook up with a successful producer (Reid Scott from “Veep”), get an agent to back them, and immediately start meeting potential financiers. Their definition of drama is when Teddy gets a chance to audition for a pilot, which might impact the start of production on their movie, or when George gets a side gig polishing another script instead of working on their masterpiece in the making. The fact that both of these lunks is afraid to tell Harry about these opportunities because they’re afraid he’ll fly off the handle makes me wonder just how mentally stable Harry really is.
And Meyers-Shyer’s direction doesn’t improve the proceedings. There are several moments in Home Again in which groups of people (Alice’s friends and the boy filmmakers; Alice’s family and the boy filmmakers) are socializing, getting to know each other, and, most importantly attempting to sell the audience on the idea that these people are warming up to each other, that there’s something resembling chemistry among them. But instead of letting us hear the conversation, the moments are reduced to scenes of drinking, smiling, laughing, nodding, glancing knowingly, while a catchy tune serves as a backdrop or even a pale substitute for actual emotional deepening of the characters. The results leave us wanting so much more, but we’re supposed to assume that we’ve just been given the shorthand version of “becoming friends.”
Home Again isn’t unwatchable, and truth be told, it isn’t as cliche-ridden as some might make it out to be. I certainly haven’t seen a film with quite this setup or execution before. But what feels familiar, to the movie’s detriment, is its many shortcuts connecting these characters to each other and bringing Alice into focus, instead of having her free floating in the middle of her own life. If the filmmaker picked up anything from her parents’ works over the years, it was these bad habits that perhaps she can correct in future cinematic outings. If you’re just hankering to see Witherspoon on the big screen again (she hasn’t been in a movie since the unspeakable Hot Pursuit with Sofía Vergara in 2015, and we won’t see her again until next year’s A Wrinkle in Time), you could do worse. But we know she’s capable and worthy of so much more.