Homecoming stories have become old hat for Reese Witherspoon. In 2002, the perky actress scored her biggest live-action box-office success with Sweet Home Alabama. A run-of-the-mill but occasionally charming romantic comedy, it featured Witherspoon as an engaged New York socialite who returns home to the Deep South to finalize a divorce from her blue-collar husband. In Home Again, her profession has switched from fashion designer to interior decorator, and the locale has shifted from the Heart of Dixie to upscale Los Angeles, but the clichés are as familiar as a bad penny.
This time around, Witherspoon plays Alice, a mother of two who moves back to her childhood home in SoCal following her separation from Austen, her New York-based music-exec husband (the woefully underutilized Michael Sheen). In short order, she hooks up with Harry (Pico Alexander), a fledgling 27-year-old film director, following a drunken 40th birthday outing.
The morning after, Alice awakens to find Harry's two screenwriter and actor buddies crashed out in her living room. (Picture a blander, less-funny version of the ensemble from the HBO series "Entourage.") Then her mother (played by Candice Bergen, Witherspoon's prospective mother-in-law in Sweet Home Alabama) shows up and implausibly invites the down-on-their-luck filmmakers to live in her daughter's guesthouse until they secure financing for a follow-up feature to their promising indie short.
The plot device of a woman sharing living quarters with a group of strange men was employed to great comic effect in George Stevens' World War II-era classic The More the Merrier, which used the wartime housing crisis in Washington, D.C., as an excuse to cram Jean Arthur into a cramped apartment with odd-couple roommates Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn. Here the setup feels contrived and utterly unbelievable. The humorous potential of the situation is also wasted. When Austen finally arrives in LA to try to win back Alice's heart, he's known about her unorthodox living arrangement for some time, leaving the comedic element of surprise out of the equation.
Home Again was written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, the daughter of veteran rom-com filmmakers Nancy Meyers (The Holiday; It's Complicated) and Charles Shyer (the remake of Father of the Bride and its unfortunate sequel). Though her mother shares a producer credit on the film, Meyers-Shyer seems to have inherited her parents' worst cinematic impulses and few of their virtues.
Party scenes are glossed over with non-diegetic music drowning out conversation. A potential love quadrangle including Harry's screenwriter friend ("Saturday Night Live" alum Jon Rudnitsky) is briefly explored but never fleshed out. A fistfight scene that should have been a climactic encounter between Austen and Harry is instead an absurdly abrupt conflict between Austen and aspiring actor Teddy (Nat Wolff), the least-developed character of the house-crashing trio.
But the main problem lies in the film's pedestrian direction and often-banal dialogue. A typical exchange:
Austen: "Where do you keep your forks?"
Alice: "In the drawer."
Witherspoon does her best with the limited material, but at times she's a caricature of her former effervescent screen persona. It doesn't help that the chemistry with her younger love interest mostly fizzles.
"What is happening here?" Alice asks Harry at one point about the nature of their relationship. "I don't think either of us know the answer to that," he responds.
Unfortunately, neither does Meyers-Shyer. By the time Alice and Harry's courtship reaches its illogical conclusion, one is left wishing the writer-director had followed Thomas Wolfe's literary maxim: "You can't go home again."