In ONCE AROUND, his first American film, Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom diffuses what could have been a dour and lacerating Bergmanesque family psychodrama into a joyful celebration of familial harmony, disharmony and ancestral tradition, bolstered by a stellar cast.
Having broken up with her longtime boyfriend and just witnessed the wedding of her younger sister Jan Bella (Laura San Giacomo), thirtysomething Renata Bella (Holly Hunter) finds herself living at home, once again, with her loving and restrictive parents Joe (Danny Aiello) and Marilyn (Gena
Rowlands). At the parents' home, Renata is soon acting like an overaged child and she finds her life purposeless. Attempting a job selling timeshares in condos on St. Thomas, Renata meets arrogant, gregarious and confident Sam Sharpe (Richard Dreyfuss), a super salesman, with whom she falls in
Back in the United States, Sam proposes to her and she happily accepts. But Sam's exuberance is not appreciated by her family--particularly by Joe, who, after their marriage, discovers himself being displaced as family head by the ever affable Sam. In a sledgehammer effort to court Renata's
family, Sam's obnoxiousness causes the Bellas to come apart in bitter family arguments. The frustrations come to a head during a confrontation over the baptism of Sam and Renata's child, ending with Joe telling Renata to keep Sam away from the family and Renata telling Joe and Marilyn not to come
to the baptism.
On the day of the baptism, however, the Bellas appear and Sam and Renata are overjoyed. But, during the ceremony, Sam suffers a debilitating heart attack. Although he survives, he is confined to a wheelchair. After that, the Bellas open their arms and admit him into the family. During a trip to a
frozen lake, Sam asks Renata to skate so that he can watch her. While she skates on the lake and Sam is holding their tiny baby, he dies.
Hallstrom bathes the opening of ONCE AROUND, the wedding of Jan Bella, in a rich, pink tint and it is literally through rose-colored glasses that our introduction to the Bellas is made. The mood is set in this opening scene for the film's virtues and, also, its faults. Hallstrom and co-writer
Malia Scotch Marmo (HOOK) are adept at setting up the interplay between family members and depicting their closeness and resentments toward each other. Permitting the film to center on ritual occasions (weddings, Thanksgiving Day, birthday parties, baptisms), ONCE AROUND exposes the core and
complexities of family life. Cohesion is the key to the film and the happy feeling conveyed is through these cohesive moments, cemented by the liberal use of Lithuanian folk songs, sentimental Italian songs, and swinging Sinatra standards. Songs become the connections to the family core of emotion
and the sentiments of the songs (in what other context has Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" become a thematic motif of family joy?) overlap in the blissful images and feelings of the film.
Hallstrom has a virtual dream cast to work with and the acting ensemble play together with a homey familiarity that is hard to resist. Richard Dreyfuss, in a carefree, pushy performance, hasn't been seen to such advantage since THE GOODBYE GIRL, while Holly Hunter (once her shallow Boston accent
is overcome) conveys the frustration and elation of a woman seeking to reconcile her happiness with the disapproving tones of a close family. Danny Aiello anchors the film in a deeply felt performance as Joe, and Hallstrom allows the other members of the cast to have their own particular standout
moments (most notably a confrontation between Dreyfuss and Gena Rowlands where Rowlands's anger at Sam assumes a simmering emotional intensity that becomes richly uncomfortable).
But ONCE AROUND falters in its insulated family world. The film takes place in New England, outside Boston, but neither the Bella family, nor Sam Sharpe, seems to have any friends or relations outside of the threshold of the Bella home. When large crowds of extras appear at weddings in the Bella
home, they do not appear connected with the family. Instead they appear as what they are--faceless extras in a movie scene. Hallstrom also has a problem conveying an American world. The film takes place under a constant covering of snow and chill. What with that and a curiously unnerving neighbor
lurking behind trees, the film seems less like an American film than a Swedish film with American actors.
ONCE AROUND is by no means a perfectly successful film, but in its depiction of the warmth and security of a caring family group and in its brilliant ensemble interplay, it can carve a niche for itself above the sadly degenerate common lot of 1991 film releases. (Profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: R
- Review: In ONCE AROUND, his first American film, Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom diffuses what could have been a dour and lacerating Bergmanesque family psychodrama into a joyful celebration of familial harmony, disharmony and ancestral tradition, bolstered by a… (more)