'Home Again': Film Review

A feature-length sitcom, sans laughs.

Reese Witherspoon stars as a newly single mother who gets involved with a younger man in the first film by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Nancy Meyers.

If big-screen raunch fests about girls behaving badly have become the rule (Rough Night, Girls Trip and others), Home Again is the exception: a female-driven comedy so thoroughly sanitized that it's essentially wiped of personality.

A wan star vehicle for Reese Witherspoon, whose sharp, emotionally layered turn in HBO's recent Big Little Lies ranks with her best, Hallie Meyers-Shyer's directorial debut is also a feeble stab at romantic screwball — a bland simulacrum of the cinematic comfort food her parents, Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer, have been serving up over the past few decades.

That comparison would be unfair if Home Again weren't so conspicuously working from mom's recipe, especially (Meyers is one of the film's producers). The ingredients are all here, most notably an attractive, affluent protagonist with a pile of first-world problems and a drool-worthy home. But Home Again has little of the old-fashioned panache or fizz of Meyers' most entertaining movies (Something's Gotta Give, for example), or their success in playing to the strengths of the leads. Flatly staged, patchily acted and hobbled by a script (by Meyers-Shyer) that substitutes strained cuteness for wit and texture, Home Again is like a feature-length sitcom sans laughs. It may find an audience — if ever the timing were right for a feel-good fantasy, it would be now — but viewers deserve more from their escapist fluff.

It's no secret that romantic comedy is a genre in crisis. Examples, of late, are scarce, with the best benefiting from bold, specific narrative hooks (a Muslim-American handling his ex-girlfriend's health scare in The Big Sick; the Obamas' first date in the underseen Southside With You; a porn addict's adventures in monogamy in Don Jon) or dominant comic personae (Chris Rock in Top Five, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck). Home Again doesn't fall into either of those categories. Witherspoon is a force of an actress with near-flawless timing, but — despite what her filmography might lead one to believe — rom-coms are not her natural habitat; they too often require her to dull the edges and spikes that make her a distinctive performer in the first place. And rarely has that been as true as in this pic.

Witherspoon plays Alice, the daughter of a famous filmmaker, now deceased. A cheerful but stressed-out mother of two little girls ("She's so intense!" the youngest exclaims in a line straight out of the Full House school of dialogue), Alice has just turned 40 and moved back to Los Angeles from New York after separating from husband Austen (Michael Sheen). She and the kids are living in her childhood house, a gorgeous Spanish-style number with a massive courtyard, splendid fountain and orange trees in full bloom. (Like her mom, Meyers-Shyer is a lifestyle pornographer of the first order.)

But Alice is unhappy — we first see her sobbing in front of the bathroom mirror — and, true to the Meyers template, it'll take a man to set things right. Or three men, as is the case here. Aspiring director Harry (Pico Alexander), his aspiring actor brother Teddy (Nat Wolff) and their aspiring writer friend George (Jon Rudnitsky) are a trio of twenty-somethings who get booted from their Hollywood apartment and hit up a bar one night to drown their sorrows. That's where they cross paths with Alice, who's out with a few girlfriends. After a bit of dirty dancing, as well as some anemic banter about their age difference, our heroine ends up in bed with Harry, the prettiest, most confident of the three.

Things don't go entirely as planned — Harry's wasted; cue the vomit, ha ha — and the next morning, Alice finds that Teddy and George have crashed on the couch. When Alice's mom, Lillian (an underused Candice Bergen), stops by, she bonds with the boys and suggests they move into the guest house; they're broke, so they accept (God forbid they should wait tables or drive Uber like the city's other starving artists).

The rest of Home Again plays out precisely as you expect: Alice gets her groove back through her affair with Harry, while the dudes try to make it in Hollywood without compromising their, um, artistic integrity. There are hiccups and hitches along the way, all of the deja vu variety: Harry gets caught up having drinks with some producers and misses a date with Alice; Alice struggles to kick her interior decorating career into high gear; Austen reappears and tries to win Alice back.

Narrative formulas can be a source of pleasure, but part of what makes Home Again such a snooze is that very little feels at stake. Sure, Alice's life is "complicated," or something. But she's financially comfortable, lives in a lovely rent-free home with her two adorable kids and has three handsome young men doting on her. (World's smallest violin, anyone?) Harry, Teddy and George, meanwhile, are so innocuous to begin with that there's no evolution in their relationship with Alice. It's one big, happy family from the get-go.

Compounding that lack of tension is the movie's genericism — its insipid writing and pedestrian direction, as well as the all but nonexistent chemistry between Witherspoon and Alexander. The latter is too slick by half, a cookie-cutter cutie without a glimmer of authentic personality. (Home Again might have been more interesting had the less conventionally dreamy Wolff or Rudnitsky been cast as the love interest).

Witherspoon doesn't have much to play with, though she gets to let loose in a scene that finds her drunkenly telling off one of her clients, a passive-aggressive yoga-mom snob played with gleeful obnoxiousness by Lake Bell. That character is a welcome shot of mischief (she has a daughter named Gwyneth; make of that what you will) in a movie that's otherwise nice to the point of numbness. At the same time, the send-up of suburban SoCal privilege feels disingenuous since the whole film — its people, situations and sensibilities — exists within that same realm of clueless entitlement. It's perhaps unsurprising that, apart from one fleeting exception, there's not a person of color in sight; Home Again is vanilla in more ways than one.

Production companies: Black Bicycle Entertainment, Waverly Films
Distribution: Open Roads Films
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Pico Alexander, Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Lake Bell, Reid Scott, Lola Flanery, Eden Grace Redfield, Dolly Wells, Jen Kirkman
Director-writer: Hallie Meyers-Shyer

Producers: Nancy Meyers, Erika Olde
Executive producer: Jeremiah Samuels
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Production design: Ellen J. Brill
Editor: David Bilow
Costume designer: Kate Brien

Rated PG-13, 97 minutes