The 1960’s saw a women’s liberation revolution which is often credited to the book, The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedman, which reexamined the role of women and the issues they faced at the time. The depression and lack of identity found in Betty Friedan’s influential book are issues laying in the background of the romantic comedy Home Again, but this overly generic film drops the ball, becoming something forgettable instead. Reese Witherspoon stars as a just-turned-40 mom named Alice, separated from her husband and taking care of her two kids in Los Angeles. She does not seem to have a want for money, based on the size of her sprawling villa or the minimal amount of work she does as an interior decorator, but there is a sadness to her life that is let out in little bursts. After a night of partying on her birthday, she agrees to let three burgeoning filmmakers live in her guest house, and they gradually become part of the family.
The genuine moments where Witherspoon’s character, Alice, breaks into tears behind closed doors hint at something more. These moments are then followed by cheesy music straight out of generic yogurt commercials and forcibly read, uncomfortable dialogue. The acting of the children in the movie is especially cringe-worthy, in lines followed by groups of people laughing on cue, or in the simultaneous dialogue of siblings.
Home Again is the first film by writer and director Hallie Meyers-Shyer, and it feels like a first film as well. There are familiar story beats of heartbreak and disappointment between characters, yet the movements lack believable motivations. The story moves along because of the plot itself, not because the characters propel it. At one point, a character jokes about the house being very pink, yet it is blue. A tired, visual gag of a character being bad at driving stick is almost immediately ignored, as he proceeds to drive the same car with no problem. These are moments which show the idea of something without being fully thought out.
Characterizations fall into this same trap as well. The screenwriters mock a producer for being more like the parody of a producer, and yet their own identities feel just as weakly constructed. One of them yells “Attica,” a reference to the film classic, Dog Day Afternoon, for no clear reason. Another has a devotion to their prospective film coming out in black and white, with no motivation other than the fact that this is what young screenwriters tend to want.
Of all the performances in the film, Witherspoon’s is the only one that stands out. She plays the role of a mom well, with high-waisted jeans and faux-smiles that honestly portray middle age. She has some delightfully funny moments while doing the laundry of a young man who sleeps in her bed, and in her other similar domestic instances. Interestingly, Alice’s age creates a discourse of age-based condescension within the film. Alice, being 40 years old, claims to automatically know better than the 27-year-olds. Her reasoning for assuming this is “I know this because I know this.” She designates how people must act based on their age and decides that her age means she should be above those younger than her. This is another piece of the film that could be delved into for careful insight, but Home Again chooses largely to avoid the opportunity to understand its themes.
Instead, they make time for moments that have been seen countless times before. The protagonist is stood up on a date and then separates from the careless love interest. Cutesy children catch their parent with the hint of lewd activities. The movie is flat, full of such obvious moments, and could just as easily be pieced out of other pre-existing, better productions. At one point in the story, Alice’s husband Austen, portrayed by Michael Sheen, comes to Los Angeles, which is the film’s way of shaking up the story. He brings a significant amount of the age condescension, as he tries to diss the younger men living in his wife’s house. The attempts at machismo on both sides are funny because of their ridiculousness, but an underlying current of gender politics and male possessiveness is also ignored, for the most part.
This is the overall shape of Home Again, a by-the-numbers, ho-hum romantic comedy, full of a multitude of opportunities for important discourse, only to be ignored in favor of more generic story beats. Alice searches for an identity while navigating a mid-life crisis, but the emotional impact of it all is neutered. Austen says that Alice “doesn’t know what she wants,” but when a punch is thrown, the incredibly misogynistic implications of this statement are ignored in favor of the expected story drama.
Meyers-Shyer missed out on multiple, better movies buried within something which would not even be a good time-spender on an airplane. Romantic situations dealing with ennui could be better found in Before Midnight. The problematic nature of possessiveness is better dealt with in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Condescension regarding age is tackled more carefully in Matilda. The film is bland on its own, but failing to capitalize on the possibility of something deeper is where it truly fails.