Reese with her Ashton
As I watched Your Place or Mine, I thought a lot about Martin Scorsese. Not because anything in the writing or craft evokes the great director — good God no — but because of his now-legendary opinion piece in Harper’s Magazine about the reduction of film to content. The C-word. “A business term for all moving images,” he says, calling it “the art of cinema … systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator.” If ever a movie has been made in the history of the medium that is just content, it’s Your Place or Mine.
From one point of view, I suppose you could look at it almost positively. It’s straight off the conveyor belt, formulaically designed to a T, so it’s not going to upset you or challenge you. It’s going to let you spend time with actors that you probably already know whether or not you like for a comfy sub-two hours. I don’t judge people who prefer spending their evenings watching something like this, as opposed to, say, Tar, which basically forces you to think a little bit deeper about its story and presentation. Sometimes after a long day, thinking is the last thing you want to do. If that’s true for you, by all means: watch Your Place or Mine. No thinking required.
The premise is that Debbie (Reese Witherspoon) and Peter (Ashton Kutcher) had a brief fling as young twentysomethings, or maybe it was in college. This isn’t exactly a film that inspires fastidious viewing. Anyways, they didn’t work out romantically but have remained best friends in the 20 years since, despite living different lives in different cities. They FaceTime each other multiple times per day. The implausibility of Peter, a New York-residing bachelor who works in finance making six figures, and Debbie, a busy divorced mom who is an accountant in Los Angeles, would be talking multiple times per day without considering each other boyfriend and girlfriend, is completely ludicrous. They talk more than I talk with my wife when one of us is out of town, every single day.
The plot mechanics don’t make all that much sense, but are easy enough to just go with: Debbie and Peter to need to swap lives for a week. Peter gets to be a suburban parent, Debbie gets to live a busy city life. It is during this week that — gasp — they learn that they are deeply in love with each other, and that their own lives could use a bit more balance. Cue airport reunion and smooch, plus flash forward to show a new happy nuclear family.
Part of the problem with film-as-”content” (imagine me derisively saying the word in Scorsese‘s raspy New York accent) is that there’s nothing of substance to look at or think about. And so any form of criticism basically boils down to a Cinema Sins-style bullet point list of things that don’t make sense. So that’s basically what you can expect the rest of this review to be.
You might have noticed that the premise of this film as outlined in my synopsis does not require the characters to be in the same space. Nor does it even require that they be in communication with each other. And if there’s a single, fatal flaw in Your Place or Mine, it is that. Our characters get essentially no face time except, well, FaceTime — and even then, it’s only a couple minutes. I’ve never actually liked it as the structure for a romcom, but separating lovers for the duration of a story has on occasion worked before. I’m thinking mainly of Sleepless in Seattle. But Your Place or Mine is no Sleepless in Seattle, and so the separation between the pair kneecaps the romantic chemistry.
And what we’re left with then is a bunch of scenes of Debbie and Peter piecing together details of the other’s life by walking a mile in their shoes. On paper this is kind of an intriguing hook: I could see it working in the right hands. Maybe for platonic friends where you don’t quite so urgently need interpersonal chemistry. But it’s a big zero in Your Place or Mine: the big romantic revelations feel totally unearned and out-of-the-blue.
A lot of the plot points are the disorderly equivalent of throwing mashed potatoes against the wall. One sloppy detail: Debbie’s son Jack (Wesley Kimmel) has a Chekhov’s severe allergy, which gets mentioned every other scene. And yet… it never comes to anything. In the first act, I would have bet my life savings that an allergic reaction by Jack would have been the thrust of the film’s climax — probably Peter accidentally feeding something dangerous to the son. Yet it never comes! Why bother writing that character detail, let alone dwelling on it so much, if it’s going to have no purpose?
Whatever. That’s enough of a laundry list of narrative complaints, even if it’s just a few items. You probably know from the marketing stills whether this movie is for you. It’s not actively unpleasant spending time with Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher, in particularly, made me laugh three or four times — he remains one of the best in the world at getting overwhelmed and stammering through his frustration. (See, from a long time ago: “Damn, Jackie, that could be anybody!”)
And it’s worth noting that supporting cast is a lot of fun. Rachel Bloom, Zoe Chao, and Tig Notaro are all having a blast. Steve Zahn, as always, makes everything around him better, here as a wacky neighbor named Zen. If he had been the star, I might have even given the movie a passing grade in spite of its lazy aspirations.
But it’s not enough. Whenever some character has a goofy line delivery or some funny scenario unfolds, it’s only for a scene at a time, like a flower popping up through the cracks in concrete. Everything else around it is dry and unpleasant even when it’s functional.