Once Around (1991)


Holly Hunter stars as the youngest daughter in a tight-knit Boston family that’s eager to see her married. But when she finally brings a man home to meet them, he’s not quite who they expected. Richard Dreyfuss plays the boyfriend, a wealthy salesman who seems to mean well, even if he often rubs people the wrong way with his crass humor and over-eagerness to please. The family puts up with him to a point, but the threat of conflict looms — even as Hunter marries Dreyfuss and becomes pregnant with his child.

Once Around is a peculiar movie. It doesn’t fit neatly into the mold of a formula drama, romance, or comedy, though it certainly has elements of each. Screenwriter Malia Scotch Marmo defies convention throughout the story. First we think Dreyfuss is too good to be true — that there must be a secret that will come out about him. But, no. Then we think perhaps Hunter will feel forced to choose between her family and her lover. But, no. Our allegiances shift between the family and Dreyfuss in a messy way that reflects the sloppiness of real life more than the tidiness of streamlined screenwriting. In this way, Once Around is fresh and unpredictable. I was never bored.

Hunter struggles with the Boston accent, and I’m not sure she and Dreyfuss have the best chemistry, but both actors have their moments in the film. Hers is one of defiance, his is one of apology. Danny Aiello is wonderful as Hunter’s father, drifting between concern and anguish as his household experiences chaos. The great Gena Rowlands plays Hunter’s mother. I wish she had a bigger, juicier part, but I’ll take Gena Rowlands however I can get her.

If there’s a message or deeper meaning to Once Around, I don’t what it is. The best moments in the movie are ones where the ensemble simply live together within the film frame — skating on a frozen pond, dancing in a conga line around the house, or trying to speak over each other at the dinner table. Maybe Malia Scotch Marmo is just trying to make a movie that breathes, one that’s more lifelike than other movies, one that escapes what Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) has called ‘the tyranny of narrative’. I’m not saying Once Around is a great film, but studying it might help filmmakers soften the hard edges of more conventional storytelling.

With Laura San Giacomo. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog).

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