If one of the essential qualities of a good movie is that you can believe, on a moment-to-moment basis, everything that’s happening on-screen, then the messy and exuberant family comedy Once Around surely fails the test. Yet there isn’t a dull moment in it. The film is about a naive but strong-willed young Boston Italian woman, Renata Bella (Holly Hunter), and how she falls for a fellow who is clearly an overbearing lout. Or not so clearly. Sam Sharpe (Richard Dreyfuss), middle-aged but youthful, is a salesman in every sense of the word. Renata meets him when she takes a job selling condos in the Caribbean. The moment he saunters onto a makeshift stage to give an inspirational speech about the joys of salesmanship, Sam commands her attention — and that of everyone around her — with his manic, here-I-am egotism. Dreyfuss wears his gray hair long in the back, parades around in shiny, expensive suits, and never, ever stops smiling: He looks like a televangelist who has just seen the light. Once Around makes a big point of what an over-the-top huckster he is, yet from the moment this clownishly effusive narcissist appears, the film also buys into his shameless, game-show-host zeal.
The idea, you see, is that Sam, beneath his fake bluster, is full of real bluster. He’s a man who makes money — and spends it — guiltlessly, for no other reason than to enrich his existence. He may be wealthy, but he’s got soul. (Why, he’s even Lithuanian!) Once Around is about how Renata falls in love with Sam, marries him, and brings him back to Boston, where his outsize showman’s personality rips into the fabric of her traditional and perilously close-knit family.
I can’t say I really believed in this movie. It’s precious and corny (especially when Sam and Renata are swooning over Frank Sinatra songs) and far too aware of what it’s ”saying”— that Sam, for all his blatant phoniness, is really a walking advertisement for the American Dream, a salesman for Life. Yet I’ve seen films I did believe in that didn’t have as much spirit or; richness. Directed by Sweden’s Lasse Hallström, who made the skillful if generic coming-of-age comedy My Life as a Dog, Once Around gets into areas of family love and conflict that most American movies don’t approach.
Sam is so good at what he does — selling real estate — that none of his clients can resist his spiel. And neither can Renata. Many of us probably end up settling down with someone who doesn’t, at first glance, fit our image of Mr. or Ms. Right, and the movie plays off that reality. Sam is a kind of father figure for Renata, which is one reason her own dad, Joe (Danny Aiello), finds him so hard to take. Joe, a warm and tolerant man, has a generous spirit encased in layers of pride. He and Renata’s mother (Gena Rowlands) struggle to accept the notion that their daughter has fallen for this epic vulgarian, but they can’t bring themselves to trust Sam. He’s too full of baloney and too damned rich. He doesn’t understand that when he showers his new in-laws with expensive gifts and gives them rides in his limousine, it looks as though he’s trying to buy their affection.
The movie views the situation from both sides: Renata’s folks are right to look askance at Sam, but they’re also too priggish to accept any notion of happiness that doesn’t mesh snugly with their own. Hallström, working from a script by the young, Boston-born writer Malia Scotch Marmo, creates a heady atmosphere of domestic chaos. He gets at the clash of egos and at the way parental love can be suffocating precisely because it’s so well-intended: It can make breaking away from your family seem like denying what’s best in yourself.
At the same time, the film shoves its characters at you with such life- affirming enthusiasm that, on a commonsense level, the story isn’t convincing. I didn’t believe, for instance, that Renata, having fallen for a jet-setter like Sam, would still be hanging around her parents’ house as much as she does. It’s a sitcom setup: My Son-in-Law the Lovable Jerk. And though Dreyfuss works hard to make Sam at once obnoxious and irresistible, he overacts strenuously, and the character never seems like a complete human being. Once Around devotes too many scenes to the happy spectacle of Sam throwing his money around. It often veers uncomfortably close to being an upwardly mobile fantasy about what it might be like to marry a rich spendthrift.
Still, for all its flaws, the film has a zesty, enjoyable texture. There are glimmers of comic truth in the rivalry between Renata and her sister (Laura San Giacomo, in a terrific performance) and in the genuine dismay with which Renata’s folks view her choice of a husband. And when Sam’s disruptive presence starts causing the Bellas to break apart, the film gets at the intertwined emotions — the mixture of love and anger — that can linger in families for years.
As Joe, Danny Aiello tones down his usual New York-cabbie jerkiness. He even sings (several times), and he makes Joe’s affection for his daughters the single most moving element in the film. Holly Hunter plays Renata as a tangle of conflicting drives: She wants to please Sam, please her family, and please herself, and it simply can’t be done. Hunter never quite gets her Boston accent straight, yet this is one of her most expansive and sheerly likable performances. Even when what’s happening in Once Around feels trumped up, she makes you believe in the grandeur of an ordinary woman’s passion.