It's best to see Once Around knowing little about it, for this is one movie that keeps you constantly guessing where it's headed. Is this praise? Yes and no. It's refreshing to encounter a movie that doesn't fit the current copycat formulas, and this richly populated familial comedy never fails to keep you interested, but what it all adds up to is a bit of a puzzle, if not a muddle--albeit a well-acted, entertaining muddle.
The heroine of Malia Scotch Marmo's screenplay is the headstrong Renata Bella (Holly Hunter), a member of a Boston Italian family so close-knit she still crawls into her parents' bed for comfort. (Danny Aiello and Gena Rowlands are the parents). Jilted by her beau, the intense Renata heads for the Caribbean to sell time shares in condos, and there she falls for Sam Sharpe (Richard Dreyfuss), a rich, vulgar and altogether overbearing white-haired salesman whose romantic intensity matches her own.
The viewer gulps. Why is she falling for this huckster? Doesn't she see he's a glad-handing phony? We wait for his dark secrets to be revealed, but director Lasse Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog") is playing a different game. Renata brings Sam back to Boston and we watch her family react to him as we did--with anxious suspicion. But Sam's swagger, money and love are for real, and he's so determined to marry Renata--and win over her family--that he moves his business to Boston. His selfish, bullying love begins to tear the Bella family apart, setting loose a tide of unresolved Oedipal undercurrents as he challenges Aiello's patriarchal role. Hallstrom is amazingly successful at getting us to view Sam as simultaneously admirable and appalling. (Dreyfuss was born to play this part--he's Duddy Kravitz as the Life Force.) "Once Around" is funny and always alive, but there's something bogus at its heart--a willful, sentimental eccentricity that would rather strong-arm you with Affirmation than deal with the questions it raises. This is both recommendation and warning: "Once Around" is easy to take but hard to swallow.