Back in the early 2000s, Reese Witherspoon was the go-to girl-next-door. She was adorable sweetness wrapped in a fun, lovable piñata of joy. Her rise to fame was quick, beginning in the late nineties and culminating in 2001 with her breakout film, Legally Blonde. For several years more years, she starred in a number of fun, lightweight romantic comedies with a few dramatic parts thrown in for good measure. But as fame tends to do when actors grow older — and new rising starlets started to take roles she normally would have secured — Witherspoon fell off the blockbuster map for several years, occasionally appearing in mediocre Hollywood tripe or small indie films where she could show off her Oscar-worthy talents.
As she continued to become yesterday’s news in Hollywood’s eyes, many probably forgot how lovely she is when she’s allowed to blossom with the right material. Enter Nancy Meyers, who also found some great success in the early twenty-first century as a writer, director and producer with romantic dramedies. Now, with the help of her daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, who wrote and directed Home Again, the two romantic stalwarts have teamed to bring together a fun, lighthearted romantic comedy that does everything it’s supposed to do while never taking itself too seriously.
Witherspoon stars as Alice Kinney, a freshly-minted forty-year-old with two kids, Isabel and Rosie (Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield, respectively), who has moved back to her deceased father’s home after separating from her husband, Austen (Michael Sheen). Needing to celebrate her big day, Alice heads out to a bar with her friends where she meets Harry (Pico Alexander), a young, charming hunky up-and-coming director who takes an instant shine to her. The two hit it off and spend the night drinking, dancing and …. that’s actually it, since Harry gets sick before anything real can happen.
The next morning, Harry, along with his actor brother Teddy (Nat Wolff) and screenwriter best friend George (Jon Rudnitsky), accidentally meet Alice’s mother (Candice Bergen), who invites the boys to crash in their guest house until they sell their short film to an interested, yet weaselly — is there any other kind? — producer (Reid Scott). During their stay, the boys start to integrate themselves into Alice and her daughter’s lives in cute, harmless ways. They help cook, take the kids to school, and bond over screenwriting opportunities. Things get a bit awkward, though, when Austen finds out about the three strange men staying at “his” house and returns for a surprise visit to shake things up and reconnect with his wife.
As I mentioned, the entire film is quite harmless. No one is truly evil, and the subject matter plays everything as if Los Angeles is some sort of heavenly wonderland, where everyone is a friend and the biggest problem is the anxiety over one’s blessed love life. I’m not complaining about this rose-colored version of reality because the script and the actors make up for the fantasy of it all. Every actor is charming as hell and there’s no way you wouldn’t want to be friends with any of them (well, maybe the producer). The kids may not be the best of actors, but they are adorable and do just enough to keep from being too cloying or annoying. And kudos to Michael Sheen, who adds gravitas to the proceedings by being his normally smarmy self, elevating the movie to a place of slightly more than cotton candy fluff.
I especially liked the bonding that Isabel and George share over being aspiring writers. The two had some wonderful chemistry without ever being creepy and their entire arc felt the most real and genuine of any character arcs in the film. In fact, chemistry was not a problem across the board, as everyone seemed to really enjoy being a part of this entertaining story. Yes, there is a lot of manufactured conflict between Alice and her new boy toy, as well as between our trio of filmmakers as they begin to accept additional jobs outside of the core group, but these issues also seem harmless and do help build character among not only them but the rest of the cast as well.
For a movie that has film making, writing and acting as part of its core, Meyers-Shyer walks a fine line in making the film authentic, yet breezy. If it was too saccharine, it could have pushed the boundaries of the glorified movie industry; at the same time, if it wasn’t done well, it might have come off as disingenuous. Fortunately, Meyers-Shyer crafts a well done narrative that makes you feel welcome into this world and this family. There was one subplot involving Lake Bell as a rude socialite who hires Alice to decorate her place only to turn around and ask her to do menial jobs that doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything for the movie, and the majority of story lines felt a little too clean, ending with a gentle smile rather than an emotional bang. But everything else about the film was text-book romantic comedy, and it works.
There’s something to say about comfort food, especially in the cultural climate we’re currently living. Sometimes it’s nice to retreat from reality for a couple of hours with a movie that doesn’t try to make a political statement or be anything else but a sweet, charming, fun little getaway. Witherspoon may have been MIA from this type of film for some time now, but based on this new outing, it’s obvious she still has this genre wrapped around her cute, endearing finger, just as she does your willingness to trust her to provide you with a relaxing good time.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include American Assassin and mother!. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.