Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss, those spunky nubbins, go "Once Around" again in Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom's first American film. Yes, the screen's most unlikely lovebirds, so lukewarm in "Always," spoon up another serving of mush in this warm family fable from the maker of "My Life as a Dog." Woof.
A yarn wound around the spindle of the Dreyfuss-Hunter affair, the picture begins charmingly enough with a gathering of the Bella Bunch. The Bellas, headed by Danny Aiello and Gena Rowlands, are a close-knit Italian family disrupted when their high-strung older daughter, Renata (Hunter), falls in love with Sam Sharp (Dreyfuss), an obnoxious but well-intentioned salesman.
When her younger sister, Jan (Laura San Giacomo), married, Renata decided to take charge of her life, a resolution that takes her to St. Martin to sell condo time shares. Then she meets Sam, a loud, corny bundle of bluster who courts her with extravagant gifts and grand gestures, follows her home to Boston and marries her. Joe Bella's position as patriarch is threatened when Sam, a contemporary, forces his way into the family circle.
"Once Around" is really more like thrice around. The title, from Joe's love of circling the neighborhood traffic rotary, is translated into action on at least three occasions. The screenplay by Malia Scotch Marmo features a trinity of ice-skating parties, three weddings and a trio of songs tendered by Joe, a retired construction boss whom the less attentive viewer might reasonably take for a lounge singer.
Marmo's tale veers into a maudlin downturn when Sam has a heart attack and pitifully wheels into the family Thanksgiving dinner and proceeds to smoke, tipple and, the last straw, scarf down the dark meat. Renata, now a mother, chides him, but ever the rascal, Sam struggles from his wheelchair and presses her to the bed. "If death had a liver, I'd bite it out and stomp on it for you," he says. "If death had ..." Well, you probably don't want to hear the rest of it.
Mistaking poignancy for melodrama, Hallstrom finds the hokum in every scene so that our poor heartstrings are loose from his tugging. Perhaps the nadir is reached when a remorseful Sam wheedles his way back into the pregnant Renata's affections after a quarrel with her family. Justifiably angry at Sam, who tried to sing a Lithuanian folk song at her grandmother's memorial service, Renata is watching home movies of her childhood. Tenderly Sam turns the projector so that the images of little Renata play on her obviously fake prosthetic belly.
"Once Around," produced by Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne of "Baby, It's You," "After Hours" and "Running on Empty," is, like so much of their product, ultimately running on fumes. There is no there there, just the dead red glow of the beckoning Exit light.
Once Around, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.