When Netflix dropped the trailer for Your Place or Mine a few weeks ago, chumps like me rejoiced. I’m such an easy mark when it comes to movie marketing—I’m so ready to believe that this next movie is going to be The One to put the “What ever happened to romantic comedies?” conversation in the ground. This movie had the credentials to do it, too: Reese Witherspoon back in the romantic-comedy saddle! The first film directed by 27 Dresses screenwriter and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna! Ashton Kutcher, too, I guess, but he doesn’t get an exclamation mark. Even chumps have to draw the line somewhere.
The movie came out on Friday, and its No. 1 spot on Netflix’s Top 10 list notwithstanding, I’m sorry to report that it was not The One. Witherspoon and Kutcher play bicoastal best friends who switch living arrangements for a week, sort of like in The Holiday, if The Holiday tried to convince us that two characters living in each other’s homes but never having any scenes together could make for a satisfying love story. Their trajectory is boring—they hooked up 20 years ago, but quickly decided they wouldn’t work as a couple—and their personalities are even more so. Debbie (Witherspoon) is an accountant and single mom who put her dreams of being a book editor aside in favor of a practical career and a quieter life. The most interesting thing about her is that she’s being accused of Munchausen by proxy for being such an overprotective mother, but regrettably, that’s not explored as an overt plotline. All in all, she’s a bit of a snooze.
Meanwhile, Peter (Kutcher) is an uber-successful marketing consultant whose relationships tend to end at the six-month mark. When the movie kicks off, Debbie is scheduled to be in New York to complete an accounting class she’s taking to further her earning potential, but her child care falls through at the last minute. Peter steps in and agrees to stay at her house in Los Angeles to play Mr. Mom. By taking a walk in the other’s shoes, they both discover they didn’t know each other as well as they thought, and that they miss each other. Eventually it all culminates in a big, dramatic scene at an airport; it’s one of the only instances they’re in the same room together, rather than on FaceTime. Even so, there’s not a whole lot of sizzle.
Sigh. Once again, I’ve been swindled by the rom-com promotion machine. But I think I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m finally ready to admit something big: Even though Reese Witherspoon rules, her track record with rom-coms is spotty at best.
I’m not going to say that Witherspoon has never been in a good romantic comedy, because Sweet Home Alabama exists. But boy, has she been in a lot of disappointing ones: There was 2012’s This Means War, when she starred as an everywoman embroiled in a love triangle with two spies—a thankless role in a high-concept but unfunny and forgettable movie. In 2010’s How Do You Know, whose nonsense plot had her playing a directionless softball player, she was also caught between two men, this time Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson, neither of whom she had any chemistry with. A few years before that, there was Just Like Heaven, one of those corny movies where someone—in this case, Marc Ruffalo—falls in love with a ghost—Witherspoon—but then they’re not really a ghost and none of it makes sense. The biggest disappointment of them all might be 2017’s Home Again, the doomed directorial debut of Nancy Meyers’ daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer. Much like Your Place or Mine, it seemed to have all the right ingredients. Witherspoon starred as a 40-year-old mother who lets three twentysomething guys stay in her house, falling for one of them, but it failed in that typical way rom-coms do when they’re neither romantic nor comical.
Even in the face of all these misfires, Witherspoon retains this rom-com aura about her. She seems like someone who should be associated with them—she’s been in so many, after all. Part of what’s going on here, though, is that we’re conflating entertainment aimed at women, which she frequently excels at, with rom-coms, which she does not. Big Little Lies and Wild, two of her biggest hits of the past decade, are dramas with comedic elements (at least in the former case). Meanwhile, Legally Blonde is more of a straight-up comedy than a romantic one. In all three cases, Witherspoon gives tour-de-force performances, and there’s no need, or space, for a leading man.
Witherspoon’s history with romantic dramas has fewer data points to draw from, but it’s worth noting she won her Oscar for playing Johnny Cash’s true love in Walk the Line. Interestingly, though, her other big romance movie, Water for Elephants, was once again dinged for a lack of chemistry between the leads. Time and again, slotting her into a neat heterosexual romance that works on paper often fails to translate on screen.
The Reese-as-rom-com-queen narrative is also inconsistent with some of her biggest career successes, most of which showcase her dramatic prowess, in contrast to the empty, head-over-heels female love interest she plays in films like Your Place or Mine. From her debut in the coming-of-age story The Man in the Moon to Cruel Intentions—as well as her 1999 breakout role in the black comedy Election—she’s always been most captivating when driven, complicated, and serious.
In 2017, my colleague Willa Paskin argued that Witherspoon’s role in 1999’s Election, as grating wannabe class president Tracy Flick, has been an invisible but powerful force hovering over her career ever since. In this light, her lackluster turns in rom-coms make sense: Witherspoon is at her best when she’s playing someone annoying who knows exactly what she wants. This makes it hard to buy her as a typical hapless rom-com heroine. In Your Place or Mine, she’s a worrywart mom who thinks she’s not hip enough for Brooklyn. But we all know she’s not a Debbie—if anything, she’s a Karen. Part of this bleeds into real life. Remember her 2013 arrest for disorderly conduct and attendant drunken rant? Karen. Likewise, Tracy Flick, Elle Woods (her character in Legally Blonde), and Madeline Mackenzie (her character in Big Little Lies) all exist in a perpetual state of wanting to speak to the manager.
In other words, she’s not someone I want to watch nervously banter with Ashton Kutcher (or Jesse Williams—god does this movie waste Jesse Williams). But I wouldn’t mind seeing her dress him down, Legally Blonde–style.
Until Hollywood recognizes this and screenwriters can figure out how to write a male lead good enough to tangle with Witherspoon, maybe she ought to stay away from the genre. Now that I know that it’s not actually her strong suit, I won’t be fooled by this kind of dreck again.