Somebody I Used To Know: Can You Go Home Again?

Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Somebody I Used to Know– David Franco’s second effort as a director after 2020’s The Rental– features his wife and co-writer Alison Brie starring as a reality TV producer figuratively limping back to her rustic Washington hometown for some R&R away from her disappointing Hollywood life and career. It’s a stretch, but one could easily apply a little rub of Tom Wolfe to this new flick coming to Amazon Prime. A classic question of can or cannot is front and center.

Matching the title of Tom Wolfe’s 1940 novel, there’s a belief that “you can’t go home again.” Paraphrasing a monologue from the book, the author wrote:

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love… back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’… back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you… back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Many who have reversed their emigration back to their specific locations of familial roots would find several truths in those words from Wolfe. Brie’s Ally character from the movie would maybe be one of them. She left the homespun blend of progressive citizens and Bavarian culture of Leavenworth, Washington for California years ago with aspirations to make important documentaries more than her current water cooler fodder. The cancellation of her latest program has pushed her to a burnout point not far removed from Wolfe’s sentiments on art and beauty.

A woman reflects while laying on a bed with her cat.
Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Wistfulness hits hard if Wolfe is giving capitalization to “Time” and “Memory.” Somebody I Used to Know is not punching with that force, meaning there’s a pretty good chance a whimsical connection on that level would probably be giving too much credit to Ally and also Franco and Brie as screenwriters. Measuring down the ambition, here’s a more apt reach for Somebody I Used to Know. 

Many web searches and Pinterest boards attribute the following inspirational chestnut about “home” to celebrated novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.”

People change more than places. As we soon see in the houses, streets, and bars in Leavenworth, Ally’s journey is filled with more of those kinds of surface-level triggers of the senses. That’s this movie’s comfort level of depth and speed. However, the real funny thing is that Fitzgerald quote was actually written by Hollywood screenwriter Eric Roth adapting the classic author for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Go figure.

To a degree, Somebody I Used to Know carries a bit of the same vein of misaligned praise and creativity. We have two lifelong Southern Californians (Franco of Palo Alto and Brie of Hollywood) pretending to lay out a pre-midlife crisis scenario in a setting far from their own. That said, there is a range of characters and grasp of relatable poignancy in the film coming from David and Alison that show how setting matters little when you have interesting people.

A woman in a glittery top looks over and smiles.
Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Somebody I Used to Know perks up when Ally runs into an old flame named Sean, played by Jay Ellis of Top Gun: Maverick. Their “great to see you again” cordialities scream previous romantic history. The two turn a “what are you doing right now” proposal into a springboard for a bender of a day reconnecting. Editor Ernie Gilbert (On the Count of Three) strings together a montage of excursions, traditions, deep talk, and flowing drinks that culminate in an awkward kiss at the end of the night.

Why is it awkward? That’s because Sean is engaged to be married to the local singer Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons, flexing her Hearts Beat Loud talent) this very week. He failed to mention his relationship status all night during his shared time with Ally, where she had to find out the next day at his house during a family gathering. Now, did Sean leave that detail out for a reason bigger than the usual cold feet before a wedding?

That’s what Ally is determined to find out. Being a local celebrity of sorts volunteering to video the event as a cherished family friend to Sean’s adopted parents (In the Heights maven Olga Merediz and TV veteran Ted Rooney), she gets herself invited to the full schedule of events, much to the “this bitch…” chagrin of Cassidy. With a self-aware and name-dropping chuckle, Cassidy calls out Ally asking if she is up to a Julia Roberts-esque scheme of stealing her man. The wrinkles of Somebody I Used to Know progress from there.

A bearded man holds up a microphone to talk in Somebody I Used to Know
Images courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

In different hands, a romantic comedy like this one would indeed veer towards, and ultimately fail to match, the uproarious hijinks of something like My Best Friend’s Wedding or, going back further, The Philadelphia Story. Cringy bits of embarrassment and spoonfuls of competitive serendipity meant for weak laughs would take over any semblance of heart. And, let’s be honest. Dave Franco and Alison Brie don’t come across as understated minimalists in their usual works.

Yet, to great surprise, that’s precisely the provocative and precious care given to Somebody I Used to Know. The existential angst and threads of romantic longing are presented with a straight face and a sparkling level of salty honesty. The tricky emotions and people experiencing them feel more real than caricature, unlike most rom-coms where the pickles and zany characters are so often purposely unbelievable for shock value. Moreover, there’s no villain in the picture other than, wouldn’t you know it, Wolfe’s capital-T time and capital-M memory.

A big help to that effect is an on-screen Community reunion between Brie and Danny Pudi. The 43-year-old plays Benny, the classic neutral mutual friend between Ally and Sean. Pudi could have easily overacted and played the scene stealer boob in this spot. Instead, he’s the perfectly pliable sounding board and external conscience for the two leads. Benny’s appearances are always welcome and well-measured for specific needs to be either an uplifting buddy or an enabling co-conspirator depending on the moment. If anyone’s a minor boob, it’s the unexpected Haley Joel Osment playing the obnoxious pop culture-referencing jokester of a brother to Sean, but even he isn’t completely annoying.

When it’s all said and done, this personal project from Dave Franco and Alison Brie is able to reverse the “cannot” when it comes to the notion of returning home as a means of finding protective time for oneself and a break from the daily grind. Airplane! treasure and Marriage Story co-star Julie Hagerty, bringing her signature sage ditsyness, doesn’t get nearly enough scenes playing Ally’s mother Libby, but the door-is-always-open quality of Somebody I Used to Know becomes very endearing.

Ask all those cuddly parents like Libby out there– including likely your own if you’re lucky enough to still have them in your lives– and they’ll say you can always go home again. No matter how far you’ve traveled from the nest, your childhood homestead will have a spare bed, a libation, a hot meal, and a hug for you. “Home,” per se, might be the most common setting in cinema and storytelling, but each place’s unique attitudes, connections, and people make them fascinating little worlds to examine and compare with our own. We’ve got a decent one here with Somebody I Used to Know.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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