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In 'Once Around,' life is full of delightful surprises


'Once Around'

Starring Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss.

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

*** The best thing that can be said about "Once Around" is also the worst: At no point do you know what's going to happen next.

This is good because it means that the movie refuses to concede to formula as it churns along, and that it stays doggedly fresh.

This is bad because it means the movie never really makes up its own mind what it's about.

There are whiffs and gleams of theme now and then but just when the story seems to settle down to explore them, they skitter away with a giggle, like elves, and the film lurches ahead in some amusing but furtive new direction.

Yet it's delightful if for no other reason than that nobody in it seems to suspect they are in a movie.

Holly Hunter plays Renata Bella, the oldest child of the prosperous Bella clan, headed by Boston builder Danny Aiello and his wife Gena Rowlands. Renata, not beautiful, no longer young, lives with her increasingly indifferent boyfriend but she's begun to suspect that her life will not be an adventure, it will only be a life. When her boyfriend, with a sniggery grin, tells her he'll never marry her, she realizes it's time to bail out.

In search of a new life, she instead finds a new man. He's Sam Sharp, a slightly shady condo salesman, played by Richard Dreyfuss with the same aggressive irascibility he brought to "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" so many years ago. His Sam is an oily charmer who loves to give speeches and whose sentimentality and decency are somehow genetically entwined with his obnoxiousness. He's like a leprechaun with an attitude problem.

Sam falls instantly in love with Renata and orders her to love him; she complies. Then he orders the Bellas in toto to love him and seems astonished that they prefer to do other things with their emotions than invest them in him. But he has the good salesman's inability to imagine defeat, however, and so he conspires to win the family over by sheer dint of personality and wealth.

The brilliance of the film is that we're never sure about Sam; he has to win us over as he wins the reluctant Bellas over. But we keep waiting for some dark secret, for some shred of inner life or past tragedy to expose itself under Sam's aggressive bonhomie. Such ardency can't come without a considerable price, all our instincts tell us.

And that's just where "Once Around" confounds us: Its deepest secret is that it has no secrets. What you see is what you get, a son-in-law who makes a million a year and whose love for his new family is as untarnished as a new-fallen snow. He's a creep with a heart like a supernova.

Concealed in this overall tapestry are smaller dilemmas: one is the old father-in-law/husband struggle, genetically mandated perhaps, as irrevocable as death. The two alpha males in Renata's life must first snort and paw and sniff each other's tails before peace can be declared. Aiello's exquisite slow burns and paternal reluctance to climb aboard the Sam Sharp bandwagon -- he fears it's really a roller coaster -- are brilliantly conceived. It's time Aiello got some recognition as one of the sublimely gifted character actors in the business.

Tics intrude. Hallstrom, who directed the much-beloved "My Life as a Dog," has an obstreperous fondness for overhead shots, which have the effect of fixing family rituals in what appears to be some kind of firmament, like a constellation. It's just overused; it grows tedious, a European art movie trick which feels inappropriate to the material.

And the ending, which turns toward death almost as a way out rather than as an organic development, feels forced. But the movie seethes, nevertheless, with the pulsations of life. It's like a loud family picnic, with too many people clamoring for too much attention. But when you leave it, you know you've been somewhere where emotions are real.

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