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Non-Review Review: Home Again

Home Again is an attempt at a classic screwball comedy where anything resembling a hard edge has been softened to a smooth felt.

Writer and director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is clearly hoped to construct an old-school Hollywood farce, centring on a relatively recently singled mother who finds her world turned upside down when three handsome young strangers move into her guest house down the end of her garden. Naturally, Alice Kinney cannot anticipate how quickly these three young aspiring film makers will disrupt her family life, but the situation quickly escalates in a relatively unthreatening manner.

Home Again has a solid premise and a charmingly committed performance from Reese Witherspoon, but the movie feels far too gentle to really work. There is something strangely bloodless about Home Again, which means that the movie often struggles to get its own pulse racing. There is a sense that Home Again is far too worried about the possibility of offending anyone, even its own characters. Home Again is a film full of selfish, shortsighted and manipulative characters, but it never allows them to embrace those qualities in a way that might threaten the happy ending.

Home Again feels far too comfortable in itself to really work.

Home Again very clearly aspires towards the zany screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, the kind of movies that they don’t make any more. In fact, Home Again quite openly venerates classic Hollywood. Set in Los Angeles, the film plays like a love letter to the community. Alice is introduced as the daughter of a famous director, one who preserves her father’s study like a mausoleum. Teddy, Harry and George are three would-be film makers who followed their dreams to Los Angeles in the hopes of making a masterpiece together.

When Home Again heaps scorn on targets, it makes sure to direct that disdain at modern elements of the industry. Reid Scott pops up as Justin Miller, a character who bares no small resemblance to horror movie maestro Jason Blum. Like his real life counterpart, Miller made his money off cheap horror movies, but is now making a bid for legitimacy. Home Again presents Miller’s desire for legitimacy as craven and tasteless, reflecting the contempt that prestige pictures reserve for horror movies. (It also feels out of touch, given Blum’s release of Get Out and partnership with Jordan Peele.)

Similarly, the movie’s other primary target of scorn is the “socialite” Zoe Bell, played by actor Lake Bell. Home Again is never clear on why Zoe Bell is famous, but that seems to be the point. Alice struggles to articulate what exactly the wealthy and manipulative woman does, but Home Again casts Zoe Bell as a very broad swipe at more contemporary notions of celebrity, the idea of people who are famous for being famous. There is a palpable nostalgia running through Home Again, a romance for a certain type of Hollywood and a suspicion of newer elements.

Indeed, Home Again very effectively signals that Teddy, Harry and George are good kids because of their nostalgia. When George insists that he wants to make their movie in black and white, Home Again treats this as something that marks him as a serious artist rather than a pretentious poseur. The three characters integrate themselves into the Kinney home by sitting around the breakfast table and listening to veteran star Lillian Stewart talk about her own experiences with classic Hollywood. Home Again aspires to return to an older and more romantic Hollywood.

Home Again certainly has a broad premise worthy of a classic Hollywood sex farce, albeit one that probably never could have been made. Alice Kinney is a forty-year-old woman who finds herself with three young men living in her guest house, and forming a bizarre pseudo-family with them. Alice begins an affair with Harry, while George takes on the role of a surrogate father to her daughters. In the meantime, Alice’s ex-husband grows increasingly uncomfortable with the dynamic at play, and decides to move back into the house.

This is gonzo set-up, but one with a lot of potential. Its most obvious parallels include It’s Complicated, a similar retro screwball comedy from Meyers-Shyer’s mother. Indeed, several core members of the cast of Home Again seem game for this premise. Reese Witherspoon has a natural affinity for broad comedy, with her exaggerated expressions and a talent for physical comedy; Witherspoon’s face is amazingly expressive, her eyebrows emoting more than most ensembles. Michael Sheen is similarly well suited to the material, with his Chesire Cat grin and sparkling eyes.

However, the big problem with Home Again is that it all feels rather toothless. Home Again never really has a sense of who these characters are, or what they want. This is most obvious with the character of Teddy, who is conspicuously free of anything resembling a personality until he is required to spur the inevitable third act escalation. At the same time, Home Again is also unwilling to condemn any of its characters. Home Again exists in a world where everybody is genuinely nice to one another, and nobody is so outrageously selfish they’d cause actual harm to one another.

This is most obvious with the character of Austen, Alice’s estranged husband. Austen is neglectful and self-interested, with Alice herself acknowledging that Austen is incredibly manipulative. Given that Austen and Alice are going through the break-up of a family, and given that there are children involved, and given Austen’s anxiety about the three strangers living in the house, this could very easily get nasty. In fact, once Austen returns home, there are some suggestions that Austen might be playing a very dangerous game involving his children and his ex-wife.

However, Home Again lacks the courage of its convictions on this point. Austen turns out to be a genuinely decent guy, one who accepts boundaries once they are set and who seems to genuinely want what is best for his family rather than what is best for himself. There is something very cynical and disingenuous in this, suggesting that Austen is a plot function more than a character. He is as cynical and manipulative as the film needs him to be at certain points, but never so cynical and manipulative that he might endanger a happy ending where everybody gets what they want.

This is the biggest problem with Home Again in a nutshell. The issue is not necessarily that the interpersonal dynamics are far too neat, or that the psychology is reductive. The issue is that Home Again is more invested in what the story needs to reach a predetermined happy ending than in anything that follows organically from the characters or the premise. This is the irony of Home Again. The premise ensures that the film could never have been produced during the thirties and forties, but the execution is somehow much safer than many of the films it seeks to emulate.

Home Again teases the prospect of dysfunction and imbalance, offering a snapshot of a collapsing nuclear family that finds something resembling stability in an unconventional form. However, Home Again is unwilling to follow any of these ideas through to their logical conclusions, afraid to journey down the rabbit hole for fear of where it might lead. It spoils little to reveal that Home Again has a conspicuously happy ending in which nobody’s feelings are hurt, no rifts occur. Potential love interests are even introduced in the last three minutes to ensure that everybody ends the film happy.

Perhaps this is the tragedy of Home Again. Maybe the film aspires to the wrong type of comedy. Home Again is a pale imitation of a retro screwball comedy that would work much better as a no-holds-barred European comedy.

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