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Home Again, starring Reese Witherspoon, is the palate-cleansing charmer September needs

The frothy fantasy, produced by Nancy Meyers and directed by her daughter, is a throwback comedy about starting over.

Reese Witherspoon in Home Again
Reese Witherspoon in Home Again
Karen Ballard / Open Road Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

“Charming” is the best word for Home Again, and how could it be otherwise? With Reese Witherspoon as the axis around which a uniformly genial cast revolves, it’s just the right palate-cleanser, a bit of cinematic melon sorbet on the tongue before the serious fall movie season begins.

Is it a great movie? No. Very little of the film sticks with you after the credits roll.

But Home Again does leave a bit of an afterglow — the combined product of its sunny Los Angeles setting, its gorgeous sets and stars, and its lighthearted take on love, passion, getting older, and choosing your family. It does just what it sets out to do: Give us a bit of fantasy, and then let us remember the joy of reality. And as summer gives way to the opening days of autumn, that’s plenty.

Home Again showcases the charm and talent of its star

Home Again’s charm relies entirely on its star, Reese Witherspoon, whose turn as Alice Kinney, a 40-year-old woman recently separated from her music-biz husband Austen (Michael Sheen), is fun to watch even when the character herself feels a little underwritten.

It’s worth taking a moment to pause and consider Witherspoon’s career, especially since Home Again follows her stellar work in the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Big Little Lies earlier this year. Her character in that show is of the same type as Home Again, in many ways: a mother of young children who’s approaching middle age; a person of means, wealthy enough to not really worry about money; and an intelligent woman moving into a new phase of life, confident in her body and her attractiveness to men.

Reese Witherspoon and Pico Alexander in Home Again
Reese Witherspoon and Pico Alexander in Home Again
Karen Ballard / Open Road Films

That’s a pretty near perfect description of the actress herself, whom we’ve watched age into that role for decades. Witherspoon has been a memorable actress since her teenage debut in 1991’s The Man in the Moon, winning awards for her breakthrough performance in Pleasantville in 1998; the following year she starred as the indelible, terrifying Tracy Flick in Election, which ensured she’d never be shuffled off by Hollywood as a tame blonde starlet.

Witherspoon’s Southern accent and perky, bright-eyed demeanor always settle side by side with an intelligent edge and bite, whether she’s flattening her lame ex-boyfriend while conquering Harvard Law in Legally Blonde, matching Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash note for note in her Oscar-winning Walk the Line performance, or gathering her shattered sense of self while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild. (Becky Sharp, in Mira Nair’s 2004 Vanity Fair adaptation, was the ideal Witherspoon role.)

But even in her fluffier roles, in movies like Sweet Home Alabama, Witherspoon’s appeal is evident; you can’t mix her up with some other actress, because her line delivery and screen presence simply isn’t like anyone else’s. She’s the kind of actress for whom the term “movie star” was coined. And in the past several years, she’s parlayed that appeal and intelligence into her production company, a retail brand, and a women-focused media company.

As Alice in Home Again, Witherspoon brings all of her history with her, which is why the character feels well-rounded. Alice’s late father, John Kinney, was a famous movie director, a philandering husband, and a loving father who left his house to Alice when he died, complete with a guest house out back. Alice’s mother, Lillian (Candice Bergen), was a beautiful actress and much younger than John when they got together, and their relationship was passionate and tempestuous before it broke apart. Alice grew up with her mother, but idolized her father.

It’s never wise to impose biography onto fictional screenplays, but in the case of Home Again, it’s at least worth nothing that writer and director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is the daughter of the celebrated Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, The Intern) and her slightly less famous ex-husband, Charles Shyer (who remade Father of the Bride and Alfie). Meyers-Shyer’s grandfather on her father’s side was a founder of the Directors Guild of America, and she acted in a number of her parents’ movies before striking out on her own for Home Again, which her mother produced. So she has deep roots in the film business, and is undoubtedly familiar with the way people in the industry live.

Home Again is a fantasy that gives way to something more like reality

Home Again feels aware of Hollywood history, too — it’s like watching an older style of comedy, but set in 2017, with all the attending mores and social norms. The story hinges on a surprising and comical makeshift family that Alice forms with three twentysomething aspiring filmmakers. Harry (Pico Alexander) is the director, and the suave one; George (Jon Rudnitsky) is the sweet screenwriter; and Teddy (Nat Wolff) is the barely sketched out actor. The trio had a hit with a short film at the SXSW Film Festival and struck out for Los Angeles, sure that they’d be able to get work immediately. The reality, of course, hasn’t been quite as favorable.

While they’re getting the runaround from the producer they met at SXSW, they get booted out of the motel room they’re sharing because — in a scene echoing a thousand other movies — they can’t pay the week’s rent, and the manager has had enough. That scene is the first in which we meet the young men, and it’s a clear indicator that they’re meant to be in the mold of older movie stars. That’s particularly true for Alexander’s Harry, who is definitely trying to channel Cary Grant.

He’s only half successful, but that’s sort of the joke. When Alice, having recently returned to LA with her daughters after her separation from Austen, meets him in a bar, he hits on her in the kind of gentlemanly way you can only learn from watching old movies with fedora-wearing male leads. She’s flattered, especially given he’s at least a dozen years younger than her, and brings him and the other guys back to her table to hang out with her friends.

What happens next wouldn’t be in an old movie: A tequila shot-soaked night that ends with everyone crashing at Alice’s house, and Harry in Alice’s bed. She’s properly embarrassed when her mother Lillian shows up with her daughters the next morning before school.

But Lillian takes a shine to the guys, and by the time Alice returns home from her day, Lillian’s suggested they take up temporary residence in the guest house. Why not? Alice has the space, and maybe having some people around will cheer Alice and the girls up after their cross-country move.

A scene from Home Again
The gang’s all here.
Karen Ballard / Open Road Films

It works: Not only does Alice get company out of the deal, but also a ready-made set of babysitters/drivers/fix-it guys/friends. They, as aspiring filmmakers, are pretty jazzed to discover they’re living in the great John Kinney’s guest house. Plus, while all three young men are unfailingly kind and adore Alice, Harry is the one to whom she finally succumbs, though she’s not so sure he’s really boyfriend material.

Okay, so this is a total fantasy — and like all fantasies, it can’t really last. The course of true love (or at least a really satisfying affair) can’t run smooth for long, nor can the guys’ fantasy of making it in Hollywood as a team. Like all fantasies, it has its failings, too: John Kinney gets let off the hook for his bad behavior a little too easily; the idea of Alice’s marriage evolving instead of dissolving is never really taken seriously; and the whole thing wraps up a tad more neatly than seems plausible.

But fantasies have their place, as long as they don’t overtake us entirely. And Home Again knows this. As the story unfolds, it grows out of the need to self-consciously ape a fantasy of old Hollywood, instead becoming something a little more sober and contemporary — and that, most likely, is exactly the point. Idolizing our golden ages (whether it’s a lost era of moviemaking or a romanticized memory of our own youth) is never productive, and it doesn’t help anyone move forward. Home Again posits that while home is never really exactly what you remember, making a new home can be a good thing, too.

Home Again opens in theaters on September 8.

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