Can you successfully build out a romantic comedy wherein your central couple spend the bulk of your film thousands of miles apart, meaning your A-list stars split-screen their way through much of their interactions, romantic and otherwise? Your Place Or Mine, the directorial debut of Aline Brosh McKenna (the writer behind The Devil Wears Prada and the CW’s charming musical series My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) seems to have taken that challenge as more than a mere screenwriting 101 prompt. It is the entire raison d’etre behind Netflix’s latest rom-com starring Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher. Unsurprisingly—if dispiritingly so, given everyone involved!—the end result is a mixed-bag.
Then again, a mixed bag is maybe the best you can accomplish when you set out to structurally thread two storylines into one film, or rather when your film has to sustain two mirrored arcs whose intersection is the endpoint. Debbie (Witherspoon) and Peter (Kutcher) have been best friends for two decades—ever since they hooked up years ago and soon afterward realized they weren’t such a great fit romantically. So they tell us and themselves in the first few minutes of Brosh McKenna’s film, which uses playful titles in that first sequence to poke fun at the fashion and music choices of 2003. Soon enough, though, the titles and their expository function are replaced by split-screen phone conversations as the two BFFs plot an overdue reunion now that they’re living on opposite coasts and living, it seems, opposite versions of each other’s lives.
Debbie is devoted to her son Jack (Wesley Kimmel, nephew of famed late night host Jimmy); she’s got his lunches and allergies and homework all mapped out, dutiful Silverlake mom that she is. Her house is the definition of “lived-in.” Meanwhile, Peter lives in a sterile-looking high-rise in DUMBO, a space he mostly uses for sleeping in between high-paying consulting gigs. She has a home. He has an apartment. Yet neither seems completely satisfied with what they’ve built over the years; Debbie’s calcified life has given her an aversion to risk, while Peter’s life has never solidified into anything worth enjoying. Both had literary ambitions as youngsters, each having been disillusioned early on in their attempts to turn their love of books into a thriving career.
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What better way to upend their lives than a flagrantly convenient The Holiday kind of house-swapping situation? When Debbie needs someone to watch over Jack as she heads to New York City to finish a course that’ll tee her up for better career opportunities, Peter jumps at the chance at revisiting the city he’d once left behind. With a week ahead living in each other’s spaces, Debbie and Peter soon find their friendship forever changed, as long-held secrets (didn’t they tell each other everything?!) force them to reassess where they are and where they had hoped to be.
Such a schematic premise drags down the first third of the film. Thankfully, once it finds its groove following Peter in full “parenting is just consulting” mode and Debbie living her doe-eyed Sex And The City-esque life in New York, Your Place Or Mine settles into a suitably sleek rhythm where Witherspoon and Kutcher’s comedic talents are put to welcome use—especially since they get to do so opposite a stellar ensemble. That includes the scene-stealing wonder that is Zoë Chao (as Minka, one of Peter’s exes who takes Debbie under her wing), the dreamy-eyed presence of one Mr. Jesse Williams (as the requisite “perfect man” landing on Debbie’s lap; he’s a star literary editor!), and the dry-witted one-liners courtesy of Tig Notaro (playing straight man to Peter as Debbie’s colleague and friend).
At the heart of Your Place Or Mine is a seemingly simple dictum: the stories we tell ourselves are oftentimes blinkered versions of the ones we should be living. Miles and miles apart, Debbie and Peter both have the foundations on which they’ve built their lives (she’s a practical single mom; he’s an emotionally unavailable cad) shaken by the possibilities that suddenly are open to them. Like, maybe Debbie could make a career for herself in the literary world … and maybe Peter is actually well suited to parent a shy, awkward kid like Jack, after all.
Despite its plot not immediately announcing itself as much, Your Place Or Mine is very much a romantic comedy—even as its would-be non-couple spends the bulk of the film separated by an entire continent. And, arguably, such a framework allows Brosh McKenna to focus on aspects that such a genre often oversees. If Debbie and Peter are to learn anything from their house-swapping experiment, such a lesson is not (solely) couched on how love and coupledom—marriage, even—will solve all their problems. Instead, theirs are journeys of self-discovery (spoiler alert, though really, this is a Witherspoon joint, would you expect any less?) that bring them close to realizing what they always needed was in front of them the entire time.
But the film’s rom-com trappings are also felt in less obvious ways. Your Place Or Mine, for instance, gleams with the gloss of films of that genre (like, yes, The Devil Wears Prada) where everyone lives in beautifully art-decorated spaces, dons perfectly assembled ensembles, and exists in a world where being really into contemporary literature means your flirting consists of talking about Franzen and Faulkner while quoting Mark Twain. Namely, a rarified aspirational world that’s hard to grasp as actually real. Oh, what those of us with literary agents and book deals would give for the publishing world to be as glamorous as Brosh McKenna portrays it here!
To nitpick at the authenticity of a Witherspoon/Kutcher match-up may feel wildly unfair. Your Place Or Mine isn’t that invested in crafting a world that looks anything like ours; it’s arguably more interested in giving its supporting cast’s ace one-liners (which, I’ll admit, is where the film sporadically got me chuckling). You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Chao say “I only listen to celeb bios” and Notaro utter “Hey girl hey” with their respective signature comedic cadences. If Witherspoon and Kutcher get to only intermittently interact and thus give us any insight into whether Debbie and Peter have any real kind of chemistry, then so be it. Ultimately it doesn’t matter since the two, by themselves and in tandem with the likes of Chao, Notaro, and Williams, get to shoulder their respective half with enough charm to paper over the film’s shortcomings. For, like both Debbie and Peter’s homes, Your Place Or Mine makes for an amiable enough sojourn so long as you remember it’s but a temporary escape of your life not to be taken all that seriously.