Your Place or Mine

(Aline Brosh McKenna, USA, 2023)


Virtually every review of this film – which arrives, with no favours to it beyond strictly commercial access, as “Netflix fare” – is sure to begin with a comparison to Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) as the pertinent rom-com ur-text; and it’s equally sure, in the concluding summing-up/judgement part, to mention that the stars, Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher, “have no chemistry”. The mysterious chemical factor – I guess you know it when you see it, because there’s no way to measure it – is exacerbated, in this case, by the fact that the leads don’t spend much on-screen time together. They talk and text a lot on the phone, though.


To the standard review, I immediately counter: a. Your Place or Mine (even the title has a pleasingly formalist ring) has more in common with Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York (1996) – itself an intriguing modern variation on classic rom-coms – than with Sleepless in Seattle; and b. I liked the central actors, alone or together. Beyond them, moreover, there’s enough going on to keep things interesting here.


Beginning with its debuting director, Aline Brosh McKenna. As a writer, she’s a rom-com veteran (her credits include the enjoyable The Devil Wears Prada [2006)] and Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo [2011]) and, as a TV showrunner, she has a mighty ace up her sleeve: co-creation of the sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019). In fact, various faces from that series, including its star Rachel Bloom, Michael Hitchcock, and (all too briefly) Sunita Mani brighten up fleeting vignettes in Your Place or Mine.


Home-swap across cities – and hence the holding-in-place of geographical separation – provides the premise. In Akerman, it was New York and Paris; now it’s New York and Los Angeles. Debbie (Witherspoon) is a pragmatic, single, Los Angeles Mom who has long ago given up her youthful dream of being involved in the deep (?) world of literary publishing. Her home is where she “keeps everything”, to overflowing. Peter (Kutcher) is some kind of smooth-taking business-enabler and good-time guy (his personal soundtrack is a playlist of The Cars) who lives in a completely opposite, sterile, lifeless habitus: strangers mistake his apartment for an Airbnb. Where Debbie hovers endlessly over her son, Jack (Wesley Kimmel), and micro-manages every aspect of his sullen little life, Peter has no ties to anyone or anything. He even cleared out the morning after once sleeping with Debbie, long ago. Now they’re just best buddies – with no benefits.


So when Debbie needs to be in New York for a quickie skill degree, Peter agrees to go to Los Angeles to mind Jack. Naturally, both will somewhat break bad: the guys watch Alien (1979) and eat junk food; Debbie lets herself be attracted to a heroic (?) publisher, Theo (Jesse Williams). And she also does a tiny thing for Peter: alerted by his superficial but caring ex-gf, Minka (Zoë Chao in a splendid turn), Debbie learns that her best male friend “who tells her everything” has actually been hiding his dream of being a novelist; she will pass his ancient manuscript on to Theo. Meanwhile, Peter tries to sort out Jack’s abiding problem with school bullies and non-friends (the bullying sub-subplot crosses over with Tár [2022]). Peter also has a disconcerting encounter with Debbie’s off-and-on friend (with benefit, this time), Zen (Steve Zahn), who strategically never leaves her garden, thus filling the ‘noisy-nosey workman’ role we find across many genres (there’s a bunch of them banging away in A Couch in New York).


Everything plays out in this type of alternating, criss-crossing pattern – juiced by frequent split-screen break-outs (not quite at the Pillow Talk [1959] or even Down with Love [2003] height of invention) and other audiovisual montage tricks. But the details are smart, and they tend to have a point. What they especially point is to the matter of ageing, and changing cultural times.


The characters are in their mid 40s, and McKenna makes no attempt to fudge that fact in the way she films the faces of her stars. This intriguing age factor hasn’t had much play in the reviews I’ve skimmed – it’s as if the commentators are still wanting, hazily, to live back in the era of the stars’ respective ascents in Election (1999) or Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) … to see only what they want to see through that lens, and cast their vote accordingly.


Those nostalgia-freaks are missing out on more than the fine points of romantic comedy about middle-age (to some that is almost a contradiction in terms but, in truth, it’s a long tradition). For, like Amy Heckerling’s wonderful and poignant Vamps (2012), Your Place or Mine has a sharp eye and ear for signs of starkly different generational tastes and fads. The entire prologue – a flashback to that (ultimately) fateful one-night hook-up between Debbie and Peter in 2003 – is about that; so, too, are exchanges such as the one between Peter and a comely old flame (Shiri Appleby from the TV series UnReal), where the mutual realisation that they last got it on 20 years previously prompts her line: “But I was 10 then!”


When a filmmaker splits a plot between characters in two locations, it may take a little longer to get through. At 1 hour and 51 minutes, Your Place or Mine stretches things to the limit. One can hypothetically imagine, at a pinch, that it’s the condensation of a TV series idea – 3 or more episodes running end to end. That’s a common hypothesis at the movies these days.


But who makes these genre rules, anyhow? McKenna introduces enough jazzy turns and tricks to keep an inquiring viewer in her thrall.

© Adrian Martin 15-16 February 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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