By Preston Wilder
Cinema is 120 years old, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a film quite like Home Again. The notion of cougars and toy-boys – i.e. older women romancing younger men – isn’t new, of course, nor are we still in the bad old days of The Graduate or Tea and Sympathy when such liaisons always carried a sinister tinge. We are all Mrs. Robinson now. Still, it’s rare to find such a blatant case of wish-fulfilment: a film where the 20-something man (Pico Alexander as Harry) is instantly smitten with the 40-year-old woman (Reese Witherspoon as Alice), does all the running, loves her even more when he gets to know her – despite her ‘charming’ neuroses – and even fixes her kitchen cabinet, like a good man should.
There’s a point here, of course. “All the single guys we know date women that age!” points out Alice’s friend during one of the (relatively rare) moments when she starts having qualms about the relationship; it’s about time society got over its absurd double standards, etc etc. It should also be said that there’s nothing sleazy about what happens. Harry’s an aspiring filmmaker, just arrived in LA with his two equally wide-eyed pals (one of them played by Nat Wolff, the hapless boy bewitched by a much smarter girl in Paper Towns); they go out celebrating after a meeting with the studio, which is where he meets Alice. There’s a musical montage (one of many in the film) where Harry and his friends drink and laugh with Alice and her friends – then all three lads go back to her mansion to crash and Harry’s so wasted he can’t even sleep with her, merely sleeps in her bed. Ah yes, a youngster who can’t hold his drink, how delightful and boyish.
Alice herself isn’t too drunk, of course. She wakes up next morning at 5.30 and does the laundry, then gets ready to drive her girls to school. (The girls are intrigued by the three visitors: “Are you friends with their mum?” they ask, crushingly.) It’s an article of faith in this kind of rom-com that the woman is capable and unappreciated, and deserves so much more if only she weren’t insecure – though in fact Home Again doesn’t overdo this cliché, if only because Reese Witherspoon doesn’t do pathetic or self-pitying. The film’s cutest aspect is the way it simply gifts her this improbable situation with a minimum of guilt, like a charming fantasy. The three boys have nowhere to go, so they lodge with Alice. The first one fixes her computer, the second one (who’s a writer) mentors her troubled, creative daughter – and of course Harry provides the romantic angle. So you’ve got tech support, child care and sex, notes Alice’s friend. “I can’t complain,” admits Alice.
This is such a sweet film (on a delicate subject), it seems churlish to criticise it – but alas, it’s also mediocre. Writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer (the daughter of Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer, both of them filmmakers specialising in romantic comedies) might as well be making a sitcom; scene after scene is just wall-to-wall talk, broken up only with contrived bits of business (like a would-be farcical scene where each boy in turn knocks on Alice’s door) and the aforementioned musical montages. The rhythm is stifling, and the dialogue isn’t smart enough to make up for it. Much of the film is actively bad.
Take, for instance, this gag. The writer friend has to drive Alice’s daughter to school; “You know how to drive a stick, right?” asks Alice; the friend hesitates, then nods – and cut to a car stopping and starting. (Oh dear.) The interludes with flaky Angelenos, like a spoiled rich woman or a philistine producer, aren’t much better (“He was a parody of a producer,” complains one friend after the meeting, hitting the nail on the head). Home Again is so likeable, one could probably enjoy it even while acknowledging its second-rateness. Still, it ought to be acknowledged.
Fair enough; but its basic generosity should also be acknowledged. The film might be broadly feminist, but it doesn’t hate men – not even Alice’s late, unreliable dad, who married much younger women (her affair with Harry is a kind of unofficial revenge), or her estranged husband Austen (Michael Sheen) who returns for a kind of uneasy reconciliation. Home Again hits a lot of the usual rom-com marks – the couple go through a rocky patch, forcing our heroine to go on dates with men her own age who talk about TED talks and trips to Bali; the finale comes in a public setting (the daughter’s school play) where everything gets sorted out – but it stays bright and sunny and refuses to be weighed down by guilt, so at least that’s something. As Alice tells her much younger wannabe-lover, looking back on the night before: “I appreciate the gesture”.
DIRECTED BY Hallie Meyers-Shyer
STARRING Reese Witherspoon, Pico Alexander, Michael Sheen
US 2017 97 mins