Reese Witherspoon, who first made a splash 30 years ago, has never lost a drop of her sunny smart charismatic movie-star spunk. Ashton Kutcher, in a career that kicked off in 1998, has had his ups and downs (sometimes in the same movie — how do you classify “Dude, Where’s My Car?”), but he has also grown as an actor, hitting a new peak as the discursive Southern dandy villain of last year’s “Vengeance.” These two are game and seasoned, with a shine of glamour, so teaming them up for a middle-aged romantic comedy sounds perfectly appealing. But what did either of them do to deserve “Your Place or Mine”? It’s a singularly chintzy Netflix rom-com even if you already think of Netflix rom-coms as chintzy. (There are exceptions, of course, like “The Wrong Missy.”) In fact, it’s two bad movies in one.
Debbie (Witherspoon) and Peter (Kutcher) slept together once, back in 2003, and then became platonic best friends. She lives in L.A., he lives in New York, and they talk all the time and tell each other everything. They have no hang-ups, no jealousies, no secrets (or so it seems), no baggage. Peter, who once wanted to be a fiction writer, is now a fabulously successful businessman who carries on serial six-month relationships with younger women and describes himself as “a lonely guy with outstanding hair.” Debbie is a struggling single mom with a sweetly introverted and asthmatic 13-year-old son named Jack (Wesley Kimmel). She’s decided to pursue a week-long accounting course in New York so that she can make ends meet.
For the week, she and Peter will trade apartments. In other words, the film’s writer-director, Aline Brosh McKenna (who’s best known for scripting “The Devil Wears Prada”), felt free to spin the premise of Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday” as if that movie were an ancient classic. “Your Place or Mine” is “When Harry Met Sally” meets “The Holiday” meets a dozen surrogate-dad-bonding-with-the-kid comedies meets a cookie cutter.
This means that Peter will spend the entire week in L.A. playing Jack’s dad he never had, coaxing the kid out of his shell, nudging him to try out for the hockey team (which his overprotective mother would never let him do). It means that Debbie, staying in Peter’s insanely luxe steel-and-tile condo, with its panoramic view of the Brooklyn Bridge, discovers his secrets: that he displays his books by color (he’s got a shelf of teal bindings), that he has never once used the kitchen (the designer drinking glasses still have sales stickers on them), and that he has written a novel he keeps stashed in a manila envelope in the middle rack of the oven.
Most rom-coms have a love montage. “Your Place or Mine” has a Debbie-reading-Peter’s-novel montage: She reads it at night, as she’s dressing in the morning, and in the middle of her accounting class (where she can’t stop grinning with delight at it). After finishing the last page, she actually puts her hand on her heart, shakes her head in awed disbelief and stage whispers “Wow!” Is this a parody? Debbie then takes the manuscript to Theo (Jesse Williams), the head of a boutique book publisher she happens to have just met (that’s how stuff happen in this movie: by convenience), and he compares the book to Jonathan Franzen. He’s also a sexy catch the movie teases us into thinking might be Debbie’s Mr. Right.
“Your Place or Mine” is an outrageously benign movie, which may not sound like much of a criticism. But it’s so benign it’s innocuous. There’s no tension, no comedy with any bite (except for the dry one-liners of Tig Notaro as the best friend who’s there to give advice), no romantic friction. Jesse Williams, as the book-publishing maestro, is stranded without repartee, and Kutcher doesn’t quite make Peter a character. He’s polite, self-regarding, and slightly grandiose, as if he were running a seminar. As for Witherspoon, she’s forced to play Debbie in a way that’s so compulsively other-directed that the actor’s perkiness starts to seem like masochism.
So many things in the movie are just…off in their overly telegraphed way. Like Jack the nerd, with his long hair parted down the middle, going right out onto the ice and scoring a goal. Or the way Theo’s Duncan Press is located in a wooden-interior brownstone in Gramercy Park, with virtually no employees, like someone’s 1978 fantasy of what an indie publishing house looks like. Or the nonstop needle drops of songs by the Cars, who Peter is obsessed with, because they’re the trigger by which he remembers his late dad, but the movie so overstates this that they’re literally the only band he listens to. Or Steve Zahn as a spaced-out-gardener named Zen.
There is finally a moment of dramatic clash. It happens at an airport, on automatic walkways going in opposite directions. All the little plot-point secrets that the movie has already spelled out for us get spelled out even more by Debbie and Peter. And still, this romantic climax plays like an episode of couples’ therapy. In what may be the film’s most flabbergasting moment, Debbie and Theo have a conversation about how they both love Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” and they banter about the novel — arguably the most devastating ever written — as if it were a rom-com with a tearjerker ending. In “Your Place or Mine,” the whole world is a rom-com. We just live in it and cringe through it.