One of the signs of mediocre writing and direction in any film is the musical montage in which the characters sit down together, for a meal perhaps, and the background score suddenly swells so that the actors are reduced to merely looking good and mimicking laughter and talk while everything they’re saying has to be intuited rather than heard. “Home Again,” written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, employs the lazy device repeatedly. In this case, however, one is actually grateful, since at least the wordless episodes provide a respite from the banal dialogue she’s been serving up and the hapless efforts of the cast to deliver it without looking embarrassed. This is a romantic comedy that comes up short in both departments.
“Home Again” serves primarily as a vehicle not just for Meyers-Shyer (the daughter of Nancy Meyers, well known for her popular successes in the genre) but for the gamin-like charms of Reese Witherspoon, who still seems almost high-schoolish (think “Election”) though she’s portraying Alice Kinney, a forty-year old wife and mother who’s separated from her husband Austen (Michael Sheen), some sort of music mogul. (It’s easy to see why she took the role—at some point in the action, virtually every man in the cast is called on to tell her how great she looks.) Leaving Austen back in New York, she’s resettled in Los Angeles with their daughters, tween Isabel (Lola Flanery) and little Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield).
It’s hardly a rough life. Alice movies into the plush estate of her late father John (David Netto), who is portrayed as a legendary filmmaker (happily, Meyers-Shyer makes no attempt to fashion clips from his masterworks, contenting herself with posters and opening credits from them). She also has automatic babysitting service—or so it would seem from the regularity with which the kids disappear from the action whenever convenient–from her mother Lilian (Candice Bergen), a former actress who’s now just a typically feisty sitcom broad.
Nonetheless Alice is sad over her misplaced time with Austen—Witherspoon indulges in the occasional crying jag in an attempt to make us care about her privileged plight. She’s also determined to make a living doing interior design. Unfortunately, her first—and apparently only—client is a snobbish social gadabout with a rich husband (played ferociously by Lake Bell, going to the opposite extreme from the mousy character in her own failed romcom, “I Do…Until I Don’t”), who orders her about mercilessly. Alice also has to deal with Isabel, who claims to be suffering from anxiety brought on by the coastal shift.
The obligatory cute contrivance arrives when, on a night out with girlfriends, she meets three young dudes–filmmakers who’ve just made a splash with a short that’s wowed the festival circuit (Meyers-Shyer does give us a few seconds of it, and frankly they look like a parody of “importance”). They’re Harry (Pico Alexander), the incredibly handsome, absurdly self-confident director; his brother Teddy (Nat Wolff), an aspiring actor; and George (Jon Rudnitsky), the down-to-earth but supposedly brilliant writer. Before you know it Alice and Harry are in bed together though nothing happens—he gets sick from drinking too much, you see (cue the cute throwing-up scene). Before you know it, Lilian has made friends with the guys and persuades her daughter to let them use the guest house while the impecunious trio has their “meetings” with agents and producers to arrange the making of their joint black-and-white masterpiece, vowing never to sell out.
Of course, complications ensue. The boys bond with Alice’s daughters, with George especially helpful in persuading Isabel to overcome her shyness and write a play she’ll act in at the school talent show. (He also helps Alice set up her business website.) But Alice gets angry when Harry stands her up one night for a dinner meeting (yet another musical montage!). Harry gets upset when he finds out that George has taken a job script-doctoring instead of working on their own stuff, and that Teddy is going out on an audition for some other project. Potential producers also upset him with typical Hollywood notes on how to improve the script. And worst of all, Austen shows up seeking reconciliation with his wife, making Harry (and the two other guys, who are also attracted to Alice) insanely jealous. Still, all turns out well in a kumbaya sequence at Isabel’s talent show, to which the boys must rush after yet another fruitless producer’s meeting, where at the last minute George helps the kid get over the jitters. Soderbergh pulled off a similar bit much better in “Logan Lucky.”
Meyers-Shyer’s script is piled high with inanities and clichés, but it’s made worse by her clumsy direction. Individual scenes are shapeless and go on too long, crippled by pedestrian cinematography (by Dean Cundey) and editing (by David Bilow). Witherspoon survives on sheer enthusiasm, and Bergen’s tough-old-gal act works too, but no one else comes off well. Except for a truly awful comic fight scene with Wolff, Sheen seems to be playing in a different movie, trying to give a real performance when he should be throwing away the lines (where, we won’t say). Wolff and Rudnitsky opt to go full frantic mode and come off tiresome, while Alexander seems little more than a hunk who poses rather than acting; modeling would appear to more his line. John Debney’s score is mostly annoying, especially in those montages.
With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, It’s not necessarily that you can’t go home again—it’s that you definitely shouldn’t go to “Home Again.”