Home Again (12A)

Two stars

Dir: Hallie Meyers-Shyer

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With: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Lake Bell

Runtime: 97 minutes

WELL, consider me confused. Last week, collecting an armful of Emmys for Big Little Lies, a television drama dealing with domestic abuse, Reese Witherspoon was urging the screen industry to “make women the hero of their own stories”. This week she is starring in a rom-com so sugary it should be picketed by dentists, and so thoroughly removed from the real lives of most women it could have been beamed from Venus.

But then Ms Witherspoon has always been an intriguing mixture of rom-com saccharine and dramatic spice. For every Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama there is a Big Little Lies, Wild, Walk the Line, and Election (still for my money her best picture).

Home Again sees Witherspoon’s return as the rom-com queen, a title for which she has fought over the years with Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and others. You may wonder why she wants the job again; perhaps she feels that she owes the genre some payback. If so, she might have chosen a better vehicle for her still obvious talents than Hallie Meyers-Shyer’s gloop-fest.

Meyers, Meyers, Meyers, you are thinking. Is she anything to do with Nancy Myers, helmer of The Parent Trap, The Holiday, It’s Complicated, and The Intern? Why yes, Ms Marple and Mr Columbo, she is her daughter, and Nancy Myers, moreover, is a producer on the film.

The story, written by Ms Meyers-Shyer, has its roots in Hollywood too. Witherspoon plays Alice, the daughter of a famous film director. Recently separated from her music producer husband (Michael Sheen), she has moved from New York to LA with her two young daughters.

Alice is going through a tough time, then, but as this is rom-com world, she is doing so in the best possible taste. Out with her gal pals to celebrate her 40th birthday, she meets three young guys new in town and trying to get their first feature film made. Alice hits it off so well with this twentysomething trio she invites them to stay in the guest chalet at the bottom of the garden. As one probably does if one has a guest chalet. (What else are you going to keep in there? Half-empty tins of old paint and dried-out potting compost? Snap.)

The three are so charming and helpful it is not long before one of them is repairing Alice’s computer, another is helping one of the girls write a play, and another is spending nights with Alice. But wouldn’t you know it, Alice’s ex is growing jealous, things are becoming complicated with her young beau, and life as an interior designer is not as much fun as it promised to be. Ah well, into every life a teaspoon of rain must fall.

When it comes to rom-coms, or their literary equivalent, novels marketed as “chick lit”, it does a critic good to remember the wise words of writer Marian Keyes on Desert Island Discs recently. Casually dismissing the things women like is just another way of keeping them down, said the brilliant Keyes. Something that appears on the surface to be light and bright can still have a serious point, or possess value, even if it is just putting a smile on someone’s face. Well said.

But applying Marian’s Law to Home Again would be a call too far to sisterly arms. It is not that Meyers-Shyer’s screenplay is entirely lacking in smart lines, or that it is devoid of impressive scenes. The clash between Witherspoon and Lake Bell, playing a spoiled LA lady who lunches, is sharp, on the money, and funny. On the whole, though, Alice is such a wet character, and her plight so shallow and insignificant, it is a struggle to care. Stay, go, cry, laugh, wake me when it is over.

If women come out of Home Again looking about as deep as a puddle, men do not fare much better. The male of the species is so useless it takes three of them, plus a Michael Sheen, to make anything approaching a partner good enough for Alice. It is all too much, like the third helping of birthday cake, and you know how that feels after a while.