By Lisa Schwarzbaum
November 25, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

In describing “Home Fries” as an “off-center romantic comedy,” the press release for this determinedly quirky caper inadvertently clarifies what’s enervating about it. Far from tilting dynamically to one side or the other, the quirkiness stalls dead center as Crayola-colored characters intersect in a traffic pattern so over-deliberate, screenwriter Vince Gilligan might have tracked the action with a map. Then again, Gilligan wrote an early draft of “Fries” a decade ago — long before he made his name as a coexecutive producer of “The X-Files.” And every now and then, through the uniformly distributed wackiness (directed by Dean Parisot in his feature debut), a wisp of atmospheric “X”-ish humor escapes the symmetry.

There is, for example, the spooky Cobra attack helicopter that chases a middle-aged married man off the road, scaring him literally to death — very “Files”-ish. The dead man leaves behind a former girlfriend, Sally (Drew Barrymore), now extremely pregnant and toiling at the local Burger-Matic. The National Guard pilots who did the scaring were the deceased’s stepsons Angus and Dorian (Jake Busey and Luke Wilson), working at the behest of their manipulative mother (Catherine O’Hara). Unfortunately, Sally’s drive-thru headset picked up radio signals as the boys planned their attack. So Angus decides that she’ll have to be eliminated — and sends Dorian to check her out. Predictably, he falls in love.

Barrymore is a sweetie; Wilson is extremely appealing. It’s always great to see the funny O’Hara, and for a kick, Shelley Duvall plays Sally’s easygoing mother. In one outlandish scene, little burger-eating kids are held hostage by a shotgun-waving drunk who turns out to be Sally’s father; in another, the brothers pilfer the jacket off a stiff in a funeral home. Throughout, a playlist of tunes prompts the mood — lest for even a minute we’re allowed to taste some Fries on our own.

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