A film review by Craig J. Koban February 24, 2023

YOUR PLACE OR MINE jj

2023, PG-13, 109 mins.

Reese Witherspoon as Debbie  /  Ashton Kutcher as Peter  /  Jesse Williams as Theo  /  ZoŽ Chao as Minka  / Steve Zahn as Zen  /  Tig Notaro  as Alicia  /  Wesley Kimmel as Jack  /  Griffin Matthews as John Golden  /  Rachel Bloom as Scarlet

Written and directed by Aline Brosh McKenna

 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

A constant sentiment that always pops up in defense of most romcoms is that an overtly predictable ending featuring the two lead characters finally coming together to express their mutual love for one another isn't a knock against the film; it's the whole journey with these characters towards such a happily-ever-after conclusion that counts most.  That, and if you like these two people in question then that's half the battle as well, seeing as you want to root them on to everlasting romantic bliss.   

Netflix's new romcom YOUR PLACE OR MINE gets all of this kind of half right.  Featuring the directorial debut of Aline Brosh McKenna, this latest genre effort gives us too easily agreeable actors in Reese Witherspoon (also producer here) and Ashton Kutcher, not to mention that the "journey" that the screenplay takes viewers on is unique and modestly ambitious, if not slightly derivative (more on that in a bit).  YOUR PLACE OR MINE has an ending that anyone can see from a proverbial mile away, which isn't that big of a sin.  The main issue at play here is that the film sets up something potentially interesting as far as its premise goes, but then plays it achingly safe.  McKenna takes some admirable risks, but falls victim to trite conventions in the end.   

The basic setup in the film makes audience members think they're getting one kind of romcom, only McKenna very quickly pulls the rug out from our feet with an early stage twist.  The story opens in a flashback to the early 2000s, during which time we meet Debbie (Witherspoon) and Peter (Kutcher) as they're about to have an easy one-night-stand (we are constantly reminded of this era in question with some nifty and amusing title cards that point out some of the decade's more egregious fashion faux pas).  Despite them clicking in the sack (both are easy on the eyes), things seem a bit socially awkward between Debbie and Peter.  The film then flashfowards to the present and McKenna does some tricky things with her camera placement.  Our reintroduction to them as fortysomething adults getting out of bed to prepare for the day to come makes it look like they became a hot item, got married and the rest is history.  A camera pull back and one quick edit reveals that Debbie and Peter are not only not married, but live in separate cities altogether.  They realized two decades ago that a relationship was not in the cards, and instead placed each other in the friendzone...and they've been happily occupying it ever since.   

We learn that Debbie has become a single mother to Jack (Wesley Kimmel) and is a teacher in L.A., but wants to expand her educational and work options.  Peter, on the other, is a successful and rich consultant that lives in the Big Apple; he never married, never had kids, and never seems to be able to hold a long-term commitment to any woman since Debbie.  Despite their geographical and economical wedges, the pair are as close as platonic besties can be, even though she's a chronically uptight and domineering mother and he's a sarcastic jokester that has issues with settling down in any way shape or form.  Both of them decide to ignite a spark in the other by swapping homes, which stems from the fact that Debbie was (conveniently) supposed to take some classes in New York, but had to initially bail when Jack's sitter had to abruptly cancel on her.  Peter decides to offer his help to his long-term buddy and agrees to come to L.A. and babysit young Jack while she comes to New York.  He stays at her place and she at his.  Peter has trouble getting tight with the reserved Jack, but barriers are soon broken and the two become good pals during his week there, whereas Debbie discovers a manuscript that Peter wrote (he once dreamed of becoming an writer) that's quite promising, so she secretly shills it out to a publisher that she admires (and has a chance meeting with) to see whether or not she can make her BFFs dream come true.   

 

 

I'll give YOUR PLACE OR MINE some kudos for - in the opening scenes - playing against genre expectations and doing some things to subvert its story's meet-cute in question.  Debbie and Peter don't even really have a meet-cute to speak of and - when we first meet them - they're essentially rounding third base and on the way to home plate.  Then, to stymie our expectations even further, the screenplay jumps forward two decades and shows them not as a couple, but as friends segregated by great distance.  We discover in short order that Debbie and Peter are so closely glued together (well, emotionally at least) that there's not a day that goes by when they're not on the phone with one another chatting about everything that matters (or all things trivial, as friends do).  When the pair decides to swap homes for the week it sends them on respectively challenging tasks: He learns about parental responsibilities after many unfulfilled years with one woman after another, whereas she has difficulty with leaving her child for the week to pursue an educational higher calling, not to mention that she now has several days alone that she hasn't had in years.  What's also refreshing is that both characters are well into their forties, and considering that the genre as a whole has been aggressively peppered with teens and twentysomethings for so long it gives YOUR PLACE OR MINE a bit of an edge to the competition.   

Having said that, those familiar with the genre as a whole can spot the SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE similarities throughout YOUR PLACE OR MINE.  Both films have to deal with the thorny premise of having its two main leads essentially separated from one another throughout most of the film, whereas in Debbie and Peter's case they're essentially glued at the hip already and have a near lifelong friendship, albeit of the long distance variety.  What ultimately hurts McKenna's film versus Nora Ephron's is simply the writing itself.  SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE had sharply penned characters and equally crisp dialogue, which YOUR PLACE OR MINE never really contains.  It's not that McKenna is an unproven industry talent (she wrote the Oscar nominated THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA), but she simply doesn't know how to make Debbie and Peter's largely segregated relationship work.  There's also a lot of sitcom worthy contrivances that riddle their respective stories, like Peter learning of Jack's bullying problem at school that springs him into action and Debbie forming a potential romantic relationship with that aforementioned editor (played thanklessly by Jesse Williams, in a severely underwritten role) while peddling Peter's book to him (all of this sounds more than a bit iffy, when you think about it).  YOUR PLACE OR MINE begins with a hint of a very interesting take on this well traveled genre, only to falter as it simply becomes slavish to its overused conventions.  

And I know that predictability is not usually an issue with films like this, but McKenna's seems especially telegraphed in most regards: Will Peter learn to grow up while in L.A.?  Will Debbie come out of her shell as a helicopter mom and have the time of her life in New York?  Will a conflict arise in L.A. that sends her immediately back and strains her relationship with Peter forever?  Will they overcome these obstacles, finally meet face to face again, and profess the love that was already there for decades in the end?   

YES to all of the above. 

Witherspoon and Kutcher are, to be fair, so easy going and agreeable here that it's hard to find fault with their performances (granted, neither role represents a stretch for them, and the Oscar winning Witherspoon seems somewhat wasted in the film despite her best efforts to maintain her characteristic and infectious perkiness throughout).  Even though they hardly share any scenes together in the film (a challenge for the filmmakers and performers), Kutcher and Witherspoon do craft a believable bond with one another.  I also liked some of the supporting performances here too, like Tig Notaro as Debbie's middle school co-worker friend that provides some guidance for Peter while here's there, and even funnier is Zoe Chao as a former sex-buddy of Peter's that forms an unlikely friendship with Debbie while she stays at his place (she also facilitates the film's requirement for extra comedy relief, not to mention this genre's longtime requirement of having a character that can conveniently appear and disappear at will to support the main characters when the screenplay deems it fitting).  Then there's weird additions, like Debbie's tree-hugging hippie of a neighbor (Steve Zhan) that seems to have an unhealthy predilection of just appearing in her backyard whenever he wants...and stays there. 

Did I like this cast?  Yes.  Did I appreciate the early setup and premise?  Mostly.  More importantly, did I enjoy the journey of Debbie and Peter that led into their painfully inevitable coming together in the end?  Not really.  Again, Witherspoon and Kutcher are fine actors and become easy to latch onto here (that, and they're both ridiculously attractive and impossibly youthful looking despite their actual ages, with Witherspoon in particular looking amazing for someone a few years from 50).  The major flaw of YOUR PLACE OR MINE is that the comings and goings of these characters towards their ultimate destination of professing love (at an airport, no less...how original!) aren't particularly compelling when one considers how this film began (as a study of devoted friends dealing with remoteness) and what it really could have done with this material.  It's an appreciable feat that McKenna manages to not make YOUR PLACE OR MINE an instant love story for the first half of the picture, but she simply doesn't go to smart places with this SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE scenario (that, and there are some odd moments involving some pathetically obvious greenscreen effects putting characters in places that they were never really at that prove to be visually distracting at times).  

YOUR PLACE OR MINE ends up being the kind of romcom that - while watching it - makes you kind of think about how its two leads could have been better served with a better movie altogether, making the journey they're on here all the more forgettable. 

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