‘Home Again’ Finds Reese Witherspoon Trying To Resuscitate The Rom-Com

Hallie Meyers-Shyer’s Home Again is a fascinating banality, the movie equivalent of staring at a bucolic motel painting until you start to see skeletons in the haystacks. It’s a rom-com about an adrift 40-year-old named Alice (Reese Witherspoon) who introduces herself by introducing her dad, a fictitious ’70s auteur who made films you don’t have to see to have seen: personal sagas about heartbreak and death starring ingenues in bikinis, most of whom he shagged. Alice’s mom Lillian (a breezy Candice Bergen) was less than half his age when they got married, and not much older when they divorced — atypical only in that she got a ring and baby out of the deal.

Pops was away shooting in Mykonos when Alice was born, and he’s long-dead before Home Again begins. But his ghost hides in the shadows of Alice’s sun-dappled life. He’s there in the selfish record executive (Michael Sheen) she married and had two daughters with, one of whom (Lola Flanery) is begging to go on anti-depressants. His statuettes and scripts clutter the Brentwood mansion she flees to when she and her husband, Austen, separate. And most of all, he’s there in the way Alice acts like her own back-up singer, halfheartedly trying on vanity careers like a clothing designer and a photographer while waiting for another loud man to seize her mic. So while it might seem off-kilter when she takes home 27-year-old Harry (Pico Alexander), a cocky director who just moved to LA after his short won SXSW, her therapist, if she had one, would say her terrible mate selection is perfectly in-key. (And her best friend, played by Dolly Wells, can’t resist noting that all their male friends are also dating millennials.)

Harry is a tall, handsome nothing, a strutting mannequin whose defining quality is skin as smooth and dense as butterscotch candy. He talks in a tranquilizing “Hey Girl” coo. Before taking Alice to bed, he purrs, “Got anything from IKEA I can assemble?” But he’s no fantasy man; Meyers-Shyer smartly makes him too selfish for that. Instead, she emphasizes his immaturity: the face that looks airbrushed, the ego that’s never taken a hit, the heart that’s never dealt with any relationship more complicated than a college fling. Occasionally, he gives a grand speech about his passion for film, which to the movie’s credit, no one takes seriously. He’s also gloweringly jealous of Austen — a beat that the movie considers both foolish and endearing, like a kid sulking over a participation trophy — while demanding total devotion from his creative partners, aspiring screenwriter George (SNL escapee Jon Rudnitsky) and his own actor-brother Teddy (Nat Wolff.) To anyone who’s survived dating 27-year-old, just-moved-to-town, wannabe directors, Harry’s more strung up with red flags than Chinese New Years. During the scene where he talks over his own black-and-white film while showing it to Alice in bed, the theater seats in LA will shudder like a 5.6 earthquake.

If you reject Alice and Harry’s affair, don’t worry. The movie does, too. (There’s an editing fumble where we can’t tell if they spent the night together, and it doesn’t really matter.) Home Again is a modern rom-com, which means it barely believes in love at all. Today’s scripts focus on flinging two misfits together for a moment of connection. The goal isn’t picket-fence bliss — what a snooze — but the kind of bittersweet ending where audiences can imagine one of the lovers alone on a beach 40 years later smiling at a shirtless memory of what’s-his-name. These romances celebrate personal empowerment. They value the self higher than the couple, cueing the credits before anyone has to make a permanent sacrifice.

A decade ago, Reese Witherspoon used to star in completely phony rom-coms, like the one where her spirit falls in love with a widower while she’s in a coma, or the one where she’s a softball player forced to choose between a cheating pitcher and a corporate geek indicted for embezzlement, which was so awful it killed off the entire genre. It’s good to see her sparkle again in something more honest about the struggle of finding a good relationship. She’s the rare star who’s become even more human and relatable after two and a half decades of fame, the best version of your best friend from high school. But Home Again still relies on nonsense contrivances to drag its couple past scene one. After Alice and Harry smash into each other at a bar on her birthday, the one night a year she allows herself to act out., there’s no way they’d talk again unless, er, her mother insists he and his filmmaker friends crash at her guest house until they can afford their own apartment. “Be a patron of the arts,” Lillian wheedles. Someday, Alice might get to brag that these self-described “boy wonders” used to use her towels.

Left unmentioned, of course, is the idea that Alice might get to brag about herself. She’s no further along in her career ambitions than these twenty-something bros. Now a newly launched interior designer, Alice’s sole client is a toxic socialite (Lake Bell) who clearly thinks Alice is a no-talent zero, and the film isn’t much more invested in her success. However, the script is devoted to the Hollywood climb of the wunderkind bros, who take several meetings with a horror producer (Reid Scott) modeled after Jason Blum, who thinks their short could become an Oscar contender and improve his cred. (Hey, it worked for Blumhouse and Whiplash.) He also suggests rewriting it to be a female-driven comedy, the number one thing he claims to be interested in making, but quickly gives that up after two seconds of push-back. “Forget women,” he grins, and moves on.

In these moments, Home Again feels like it would rather be a Hollywood satire—or really, a sigh-tire, as it grumbles instead of jokes. This is Meyers-Shyer’s debut, but, like Alice, the young writer-director is a daughter of Hollywood. Her parents Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer collaborated on Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, and The Parent Trap, divorcing just after Meyers began directing. Home Again has an eye for the crazy-making local customs: the mansion squatters thoughtlessly eating the owner’s leftover Nobu, the conversations that abruptly end when someone takes a phone call, the balding adults who are just as immature as boys, and the fear in Alice’s eyes when the boys freak out about her famous family. Once again, she’s gone from being herself to being merely her father’s daughter.

Meyers-Shyer registers Alice’s alarm, and the daddy issues driving her bad dating habits. But the movie is too sunshiny for psychoanalysis. It keeps things upbeat, even if Jason Blum could make it a horror movie with barely any tweaks, the tale of a woman and her two daughters succumbing to the full charm offensive of three moochers and an ex-husband who don’t want to leave her house. This film about a woman is really about all men around her — in one scene, all four men burst into Alice’s bedroom to declare their goals while she’s simply trying to dress for dinner. Instead of exploring her own happiness, she just gets to build a boundary to keep the rogues out.

Fourteen years ago, Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give was considered daring for paying attention to the sex lives of middle-aged wealthy women. Today, Home Again has the rotten timing to hit theaters in a moment when audiences shun the thought that someone with a fancy kitchen has a problem worth filming. Yet, in its own way, Home Again is as personal of a film as the ones Alice’s father made, and Harry vows to make. I can’t help giving it my empathy, if not my respect. I just wish Meyers-Shyer took herself as seriously as do her fictional auteurs.