Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Movie Review: Home Again (2017)



I’ve made it no secret how much personal taste factors into every film I’ve reviewed so far, and likely every film I’ll review after this. Every critic has an inherent bias behind their reviews, that bias being their own idea of what makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ film. If there was a real consensus on what makes good and bad art, there wouldn’t be a need for multiple critics if everyone agreed on the same thing. Rather than present my opinion as objective fact, which either by design or by accident is the case with most of us, I keep things honest and admit that I’m not expecting anyone else to share my views; all I care about is being understood as to why I have the views I do. Today’s review, however, is going to be a weird turn with that in mind. We’re dealing with a romantic comedy, and one that holds a lot of signifiers of what I consider to be a ‘chick flick’… and yet, this is the kind of film that appeals to my tastes. How exactly, given my relentless tirades about how much I hate the tropes of ‘chick flicks’? Well, let’s get started and I’ll explain. This is Home Again.

The plot: Separated housewife Alice (Reese Witherspoon), after a boisterous 40th birthday celebration, has made a connection with young, prospective filmmaker Harry (Pico Alexander). Her mother Lillian (Candice Bergen) invites Harry and his friends George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) to stay in Alice’s guest house. They eventually become friends with Alice and her daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), with Alice and Harry potentially starting a relationship. However, things are about to get awkward when Alice’s estranged husband Austen (Michael Sheen) returns.

Witherspoon might be one of the most natural mothers on film I’ve seen in a while. Her general demeanour combined with some seriously good comic timing make for the kind of character you could see being a mother in your own neighbourhood… provided you live in the U.S., I suppose, but still. Sheen as the separated husband lets him flex some of that slimy-but-lovable attitude from Twilight and thank the Volturi for that; for a human weasel who deserves to get punched in the face for some of his lines, and actually does at one point, he is very pleasant to see on-screen and he gets an unsurprising amount of mileage out of that accent. Alexander is the weakest of the main three guys, not being much more than assertive and just a touch entitled (one of the romantic scenes feels really off thanks to this performance), but he does well opposite the others and especially Witherspoon for the most part.

Rudnitsky, by contrast, is the single best thing about this movie: Not only does he get the best lines, including a couple of fourth-wall nudges, he also genuinely comes across like the sort of perceptive creature that would make for a good screenwriter. Wolff doesn’t get nearly as much time on screen as he should, and aside from one truly cathartic moment involving Sheen, he doesn’t really get a chance to shine. Weird, since his character is supposed to be a leading actor, but it’s at least passable. Candice Bergen does well in her interactions with the mains, and even though the casting is rather obvious considering the character, it still feels warranted to see the others treat her like a beloved film icon… because she is. Lake Bell is bitchy as she is written to be, so technically a success, Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield as Alice’s daughters are very sweet, and if Reid Scott’s film producer isn’t a stand-in for Jason Blum, I might as well just quit right now.

This film was written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of Nancy Meyers. You know, the filmmaker who gave us the surprisingly heinous The Intern that apparently I must hate because I’m a guy? Yeah, that fucking thing. Meyers-Shyer has apparently been surrounded by the film business for most of her life; it certainly shows here. Starting out with a tribute to Alice’s in-universe father, an acclaimed filmmaker with a wondering eye, the film is just as much about the creative process as it is about romance. In fact, it might even be more about the process of filmmaking and it is rather clearly being depicted by someone who knows their way around the business. And honestly, it is insanely effective. Beyond just tapping into my adoration for all things about cinema, the scenes where Harry, George and Teddy are talking executives about their film feel real and something weirdly mundane. Not even in a cynical way, though; we don’t get scenes where people are outright trying to ruin whatever ideas the three actually have, just misguided suggestions. When this connects with Alice’s arc and the legacy of her father, the film fills with this aura of enjoyment of the medium that is about as resonant as it can get when talking about films that don’t actually exist. It also leads to notions of how life informs art, like the films of Alice’s father or the play her daughter writes for school. It should be more than clear by now that I’m a sucker for this stuff. Probably helps that Meyers-Shyer uses that edge to comment on this film as well, in particular having George spell out the third-act break-up in these kinds of stories, made better by how the film really doesn’t go through with the usual conventions. Well, most of them, at least.

While structurally familiar as far as rom-coms go, what with the main romance being about two guys fighting over a girl (more than a little weird that we rarely see the reverse, but that’s a topic for another review), it thankful deviates in some helpful places. For a start, the main romance between Alice and Harry isn’t exactly chaste but it’s far more grounded and loving rather than lustful, which makes watching it progress more pleasant than I’ve seen from others. For another, the love triangle between them and Austen doesn’t end up pushing any of the parties involved into anything spiteful or showing the kind of callousness that only seems to show up on the big screen. And for a third, and *SPOILERS*, it’s left ambiguous. Alice doesn’t have her entire arc capped off just by choosing “the right guy”, again adding that touch of the real to it. However, while definitely lessened, we still have the chick flick issue to deal with here: Consequences? What consequences? The love triangle ends up working out alright because no real confrontations are made at all; it just kind of resolves itself so that everyone gets a happy ending. That lack of confrontation also factors into the third-act break-up, which despite George’s ribbings still happens here, and how limp it turns out. Usually, it’s the point where things explode and things are said that shouldn’t be; here, it happens for contrived reasons and is cut short just as badly. And yet, even with that in mind, I was more than happy to sit through all of it. It must have done something right.

All in all, it’s a film buff’s love story; hopefully, you’ll see why I have a soft spot for this kind of film. It’s a solid rom-com that not only highlights the age-old writing advice of writing what you know, but also how that method influences cinematic art. The acting is dead solid, its understanding of the power of film is quite commendable, and while the story as a whole incorporates some of the weaker aspects of the ‘chick flick’, it does so in a way that is far less annoying than I’m used to seeing. It ranks higher than Raees, as what this film works is how it doesn’t always take the easy route; Raees was ultimately a lot plainer and not nearly as interesting as a story. However, given this still carries a few tropes that I’d be ecstatic to see the back of, it doesn’t rank as high as the far more touching and far better structured Fences.

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