We’re all aware that there’s a reason the laugh track sitcom has diminished in prominence, right? The purpose of the laugh track was to make up for deficiencies in comedy writing on a tight weekly schedule, giving the audience the illusion of consistent hilarity when in actuality the shows were carried more on charming character dynamics and pauses for artificial laughter than they were on veritable baseline comedic quality. That’s how something as flaccid as Full House could stay on the air for eight seasons, and it is seemingly in the spirit of Full House that we have received Home Again, a film that feels less like a contained narrative than it does the first few episodes of a sitcom that will never come to fruition, only it doesn’t have the benefit of a laugh track to remind us what was supposed to be funny.
Recently separated mother Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) has left her husband in New York to move back into her deceased film director father’s California home with her two daughters. During her fortieth birthday celebrations, she meets up with three best friends (Nat Wolff, Pico Alexander, and Jon Rudnitsky) who want to make it big as filmmakers in Hollywood. Circumstances lead to Alice begrudgingly let the trio stay in her guest house, and she begins to fall for their charms even as her husband (Michael Sheen) starts to worm his way back into her life.
Despite that fairly intriguing set-up, there isn’t much of a throughline to Alice’s newfound unconventional living situation. There are teases of romance with one of the guys—whom the film can’t stop reminding us is thirteen years her junior, lucky her—and allusions to the idea that Alice overcomes depression and finds emotional independence by bringing these men into hers and her daughters’ lives, but those are ideas that exist in the periphery rather than serve as central story arcs. Instead, Alice and the boys feel like broadly sketched archetypes of the single mom, the flirtatious bachelor, the free artist, and the little brother, and the key appeal of the film is supposed to be in watching them bounce off one another in amusing ways, even as there is only the semblance of a central conflict.
But here’s the problem: if you’re going to play it fast and loose with giving your audience a reason for comic tension, you really need to step up your game with written jokes or improvisational farce, and writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer seems unable to deliver either with consistency. There are moments that are clearly meant to be delivered as jokes, but they fall flat either for their banality or the seeming casual disinterest of the cast. Like a struggling sitcom, the film’s first few vignettes have some trouble finding their footing, and to its credit the cast does eventually develop a chemistry that delivers a few laughs where the earlier scenes couldn’t deliver. But by the time it finds that feel-good groove the film is already almost over, and so little has actually happened plot-wise that the experience feels insubstantial and forgettable.
There’s nothing to really hate about Home Again; it’s just bland, inoffensive time-wasting that feels better suited to the small screen than the big. If these characters felt less like sketches and more like people fully realized before production, there might be something to this flimsy character comedy, though the lack of improv chops from any of the principle actors leads me to believe that might not be the case. As it stands, Home Again may have its heart in the right place as a bit of light, escapist entertainment, but it stops just short of artificially pausing conversation to let canned laughter dictate the audience’s reaction.