Few dying arts have seen as many halfhearted revivals as the romantic comedy, a genre that limped on fumes through the 2010s, near dead, until streamers started tossing off cheapo versions. The romantic comedy is back, interviews and marketing materials crowed, as if what was being offered could even match the level of what were once considered middling versions of the form. If you can’t even achieve How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, why are we to treat you like Sleepless in Seattle?
Better, maybe, that the romcom really dies out and is let to rest in peace, until it can be properly and thoroughly resurrected. That was my conclusion after watching Your Place or Mine (Netflix, February 10), an attempt at the high-gloss of old that withers in the shadow of what’s been lost.
The film’s pedigree is strong. It is written and directed (in her directorial debut) by Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote The Devil Wears Prada and 27 Dresses. Reese Witherspoon, briefly the Sweet Home Alabama queen of the romcom, stars and produces. And, if he does it for you, there is the draw of Ashton Kutcher, making only his second film appearance in nine years. These aren’t two random streaming-age actors tossed into some hasty movie; this is considered stuff, from a smart filmmaker, with movie stars at the center.
Alas, it’s all for naught. Your Place or Mine occasionally gives off a glimmer of something interesting, but all too quickly snaps back to the featureless drudgery that has, sadly, come to define its genre.
Witherspoon plays Debbie, another of her tightly wound mom characters, this one a school administrator of sorts living in a lovely little house in Los Angeles. Her best friend, Kutcher’s Peter, lives an empty rich bachelor’s life in New York City. They talk on the phone, or video conference, just about every day, an enduring connection that began with a drunken hookup 20 years previous (too glancingly sketched out at the beginning of the film) but gradually evolved into this cross-continental, modern-age epistolary relationship. When Debbie travels to New York for a career advancement opportunity, she swaps houses with Peter, who heads west to look after Debbie’s geeky son, Jack (Wesley Kimmel, nephew of Jimmy).
It’s a cute setup for a movie, with shades of Nancy Meyers’s The Holiday and, of course, of Sleepless in Seattle, in which the two would-be lovers share precious little screen time. Your Place or Mine is about the virtual chemistry between its two stars, but it mostly has to rely on their solo, standalone charms. Alas, McKenna doesn’t give either actor much with which to make a character. The film peddles the expected tropes: she’s overprotective of her son; he’s a lonely lothario clearly pining for real connection; she’s adorably dowdy; he’s a fading cool guy. That’s pretty much it. These tired, deeply gendered stock traits are not enough to build a movie on, and never have been.
But there are those glimmers. It’s revealed in perhaps too subtle fashion that Peter is in recovery, a meager glimpse of a rich backstory. Debbie mentions a drunken mother in one toss-off line, a suggestion of past darkness—one that might connect her to Peter’s struggles in some way—that the film chooses not to explore. There’s a nice, sad tension to the film’s romance, too: why couldn’t these longtime friends have just expressed their feelings for one another years ago? They’ve wasted so much time! I wonder if there was at some point a sharper, more particular version of this script, one that delved deeper into its characters’ intimate histories, that let them be complicated individuals.
Instead, we watch as Peter gets chummy with Jack by flouting the rules of nagging old mom and Debbie embarks on a not terribly believable career adventure in publishing. (It’s on that journey that she meets a dashing book editor played by Jesse Williams; the movie offers no convincing reason why she shouldn’t end up with him instead.) In a rough sense, Debbie and Peter are stepping into each other’s lives in order to see the other’s perspective and thus realize that they are meant to be together. But nothing they learn is all that compelling. Neither character seems organically moved toward romantic epiphany; they’re simply placed there by the film when the time has come.
Both Debbie and Peter have had any potential sharp edges blunted, so that these two sunshiny actors can play Nice People. (Much like what happened with last year’s Marry Me.) There is little nettlesome tic here, little true stubbornness or vanity or intractable emotional issues. It’s all just window dressing, like the ugly little plants Debbie places in Peter’s barren, modernist apartment in a wan effort to spruce the place up—to, in vain, give it the feeling of something like life.
#Deserve #Romcoms #Place