THE DANGER in making a movie about a family, rather than, say, a secret agent or a Martian colony, is that while few of us have spied for our country or gone into space, most of us do have experience with mothers, fathers, in-laws and siblings of some description. And that means we can spot the unbelievable or insincere a mile away.

That's the problem with "Once Around," a "comedic fable" starring Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss.

Hunter is Renata Bella, a Boston waitress from a loving Italian-American family who, after younger sister Jan (Laura San Giacomo) gets married, despairs of ever walking down the aisle herself. With the rest of the family wondering when the last of the unwed Bellas will tie the knot, Hunter confronts longtime live-in boyfriend Griffin Dunne: "I could change your life," she promises.

"I think my life's pretty good," he answers.

Who could argue with that?

Intent on taking control of her life, Hunter flies to the Caribbean to learn how to sell time-share condos to sun-deprived Bostonians and meets Sam Sharpe (Dreyfuss), a brash, divorced, millionaire time-share salesman and self-described descendant of Lithuanian generals. Dreyfuss, so crispily tanned and light-haired that he looks like Jimmy Buffett, sweeps Hunter off her feet, off to New York and into his limo, before driving her up to Boston, eager to meet the family.

That's when the trouble begins, for rather than being glad their little girl has landed on her feet, Dad (Danny Aiello), Mom (Gena Rowlands) and the rest of the Bellas are understandably distressed by this obnoxious older interloper. Family gatherings get progressively forced and fractious and we're left to wonder if Dreyfuss is generous enough to change his act or the Bellas are loving enough to accept him the way he is.

"Once Around" is the first American feature by Sweden's Lasse Hallstrom, director of 1987's rightfully acclaimed "My Life as a Dog." In that touching, funny film Hallstrom succeeded everywhere he fails in "Once Around." While in my "My Life" he made it seem perfectly reasonable for a boy to be unable to drink a glass of milk without throwing it into his face, here he can't make us believe that Hunter and Dreyfuss would fall in love, let alone stay in it. Even the way the Bellas pass mashed potatoes around the dinner table seems out of sync, as if the Swedish director had a tough time comprehending an American movie about an Italian family.

One scene packs more feeling -- and comments more poignantly on the concept of "family" -- than the rest of the movie in its entirety. After a particularly unpleasant episode with her family, the pregnant Hunter retreats to the safety of the home she's made with Dreyfuss. Lying on the couch, stripped to her bra and slacks, she watches home movies. Dreyfuss turns the projector and focuses it on his wife's bulging belly, causing images of the young Bella siblings to dance on her skin.

But such successes are few and far between. On the whole "Once Around" is strangely enervating, proof that family problems -- even those of fictional families -- are often best kept behind closed doors.

ONCE AROUND (R) -- Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue.