Film Review: “Home Again”

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Nat Wolff and Lake Bell
Directed By: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 97 minutes
Open Road Films

I imagine the pitch for “Home Again” was originally a sitcom. Hallie Meyers-Shyer probably pitched to a studio big wig that over a 24 episode season, the audience would be introduced to newly divorced and hard-working interior designer Alice Kinney. We’ll watch as she picks up her life, and her two kids, to move to her father’s old home in sunny L.A. She’s the daughter of a former film prodigy, whose greatest achievements weren’t the boxed up Oscars in his work room, but raising Alice. I also imagine the pitch ended with an executive saying, “Not enough content. Why not make it a movie?”

The only thing missing from “Home Again” is a canned laugh track, applause and other phony audience reactions. The 97-minute sitcom has Alice, after a drunken night at the bar, take in three young go-getters looking to make it big in Hollywood. They remind me a lot of “Entourage” and I kind of hated that show. George (Jon Rudnitsky) seems to believe he’s the next Stanley Kubrick or Walt Whitman, Harry (Pico Alexander) wants to move beyond being a bit-part actor, and Teddy (Wolff) is the “big picture” man of the group, who smooths talks people like a skeevy used car salesman.

Problems arise when Teddy swoops in on Alice like a sexual predator of women going through a midlife crisis. George becomes upset because he believes he’s entitled to some nooky with Alice because he’s the “nice guy” and he seems frustrated that he’s been friend-zoned. As for Harry, he’s slight impartial, but ends up showing his true colors when he views himself as the shining armor brought in to protect Alice and her two children like a vicious Mother bird.

“Home Again” is barely kept alive by Witherspoon’s natural likability as well as her growth throughout the movie as a woman coping with the concept of becoming a single mom. Most movies would handle her shortcomings and struggles with grace and realism that creates a humanistic bond with the audience. Instead she makes a few speeches reminiscent of “Ally McBeal” and allows for the three-men living in her home to commit “Two and a Half Men” hijinks. “Home Again” is a boring copy and paste of common television dramedys.

Like any sitcom, the character’s emotions, feelings, and misunderstandings are hashed out in a brisk verbal manner. It seems all too easy for everyone to admit their flaws, apologize and hug it out like it’s a family night around on the television. Everyone just comes together like one big dysfunctional family and forgets all their squabbles. If you want to believe in a phony universe where four men pining for Alice’s emotional and sexual affection can break bread at a table in peace, that’s fine. But the unearned sappy mentality and rushed conflict resolution in “Home Again” is lazy.

Film Review: “In Dubious Battle”

Starring: James Franco, Vincent D’Onofrio and Robert Duvall
Directed by: James Franco
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 50 mins
Momentum Pictures

Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Among the many great novels by John Steinbeck are a couple detailing with life during the depression. Most people are aware of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film starring Henry Fonda. The lesser known novel, written in between “Tortilla Flat” and “Of Mice and Men” (Jesus, this guy had some talent) was titled “In Dubious Battle.”

The year is 1934. We find ourselves in the Bolton Apple Orchards of California. Many people have picked up back east and headed west with the promise of available work and great wages. However, the influx of laborers has driven wages down, much to the chagrin of the apple pickers. A burly man named London (D’Onofrio) confronts old man Bolton (Duvall). Having been promised three dollars a day for their work, the workers have only received one dollar a day and are, justifiably, unhappy. They want to fight for what they have owed them. They only need a little nudge.

Some of you reading this may be saying to yourself, “I didn’t know James Franco directed.” I am a fan of his film “SAL,” but I was shocked to learn that, if the Internet Movie Data Base is to be believed, he has no less than SEVEN films coming out this year that he directed. He really is a renaissance man! Franco also stars here as Mac, an organizer for a group that is trying to unionize the apple pickers. He had taken under his wing a young man named Jim (Nat Wolff). His eyes not truly open, Jim is drawn to the movement by the fiery rhetoric of Mac. Together they apply for work at Bolton’s orchards and try to blend in. They begin to make small talk with the other workers, trying to feel out who can be a leader and discover London. They discover that most of the workers have had their spirits crushed. When Jim makes an optimistic comment he is met with a frown. “That sounds like hope,” he’s told. But hope may be all these people need.

Perfectly paced and skillfully cast, “In Dubious Battle” is one of those small films that occasionally see the light of day. With a perfect period background and an accompanying musical score by Volker Bertelmann, whose score for this year’s “Lion” has been nominated for an Academy Award, the film takes you back in time to a period when life seemed easier but surely wasn’t. And Franco seems to be the new Woody Allen in that everyone wants to work with him. He has filled his cast with some of the best (and in my case, favorite) character actors, including Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston and John Savage. As London, D’Onofrio adds another great character to his resume. Wolff begins the film clad in innocence, growing more defiant as the story progresses. Franco’s Mac is almost a step-brother to “The Grapes of Wrath”s Tom Joad, pushing forward and giving the occasional inspirational speech.

I’ll admit here that I am a member of a labor union. My current home-state, Missouri, recently voted to be a “Right to Work” state. I found this film inspirational, both in content and in the commemoration of those that came before us.