Start Making Sense

A stylistic mess, Home Fries hops out of the pan and into the fire.

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A third of the way through Home Fries, you may begin wondering if the filmmakers haven't outsmarted themselves. Overloaded with oddities but a bit short on horse sense, this is one of those stubbornly defiant, attitude-driven movies that's so busy scrambling genres, breaking rules, and dashing expectations on the road to becoming art that it slips off into the ditch. Put another way, imagine an elaborate dinner at which the chef heaps half a dozen courses on your plate all at once and tells you to dig in.

What we have here, if I may dare to deconstruct, is a quirky, small-town romance fighting for its life inside the horror story of a profoundly dysfunctional family, all of which has been entwined with a black comedy about murderous revenge. The dedicated postmodernists who cooked it up are writer Vince Gilligan, who also happens to be an executive producer of the megahit X-Files TV series, and rookie director Dean Parisot, who has won awards for his short films. Apparently, they have attracted the attention of certain industry heavyweights: Directors Barry Levinson, whose interests have ranged from Rain Man to Tin Men, and Lawrence Kasdan, who gave us The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist, are two of Home Fries' four producers.

Without further ado, into the maze: At night, in a nameless little farm town plunked down in an unidentified state, a middle-aged pseudo-family man named Henry Lever (Chris Ellis) stops to see his young mistress, a cashier at the local Burger-Matic who's heavily pregnant with his child. On the way home Henry is suddenly accosted by two men in a black helicopter (there's a surreal X-Files touch for you) and promptly drops dead from the shock. Soon we learn that the guys flying the chopper are the dead man's maladjusted stepsons, and they've been put up to this dark piece of business by their evil, manipulative mother, who now schemes to take further revenge on her wayward husband's girlfriend.

Just the setting for romance, no? And for some head-spinning complication. The girlfriend, Sally, is played by Drew Barrymore, the moon-faced cherub from the celebrated theatrical family, who evidently has put her naughty ways behind her and seems intent now on winning our hearts. For this role Barrymore wears what looks like a wig of floppy red curls, which gives her the appearance of a puffed-up cross between Little Orphan Annie and Howdy Doody, and instantly beckons our sympathies. In addition to snaring the affections of the now-departed Henry, she inflames the passions of Dorian (Luke Wilson), a Nineties-ish version of the upright, appealing, slightly baffled innocent who has been hanging around small towns in the movies since the days of Andy Hardy. Squint a little and you see goofy Forrest Gump all over again.

The only problem here is that Dorian, along with being a wide-eyed wonder, is also one of the helicopter jockeys: He's just helped to scare Sally's former lover, his own stepfather, to death. Now, at the demonic direction of his mother (Catherine O'Hara), he and his psychopathic brother Angus (Jake Busey) are to eliminate Sally. But because Dorian falls in love with her instead, we're presented with the possibility that he will be both stepbrother and stepfather to her child.

That's just about all the plot anyone needs to know. In its more lucid moments, Home Fries gets off some entertaining zingers about the destructive power of lunatic mothers, as well as revealing, up close and personal, more than most of us need to know about Lamaze childbirth classes, the actual assembly of franchise hamburgers, and the more violent extremes of sibling rivalry. In young Busey, sporting the blond hair, horse face, and manic edge that runs in his acting family, we discover the ultimate older-brother nightmare.

In its denser modes, Home Fries neglects to explain why virtually no one in this tiny town seems to know anyone else, and it tosses in half a dozen minor characters for no good reason. Don't even ask about the movie's odd title: It has virtually nothing to do with anything we see in these 92 minutes.

Like the lesser works of Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch, Home Fries is unmistakably smug in its hipness--as when it employs hopelessly corny pieces of music such as Dean Martin's version of "Memories Are Made of This" and two tunes by Zamfir, late-night TV's "master of the pan flute," as sneery counterpoint to the images onscreen. Gilligan and Parisot also seem unduly proud of their tangles of character, their swirls of mood, the way they taunt and game us by incessantly changing their spots. If the audience must strain and struggle to get a handle on things, Home Fries insists, so much the better: In the postmodern way of looking at things, the mask outranks the face anyway, and irony is the big dog among contemporary poses. If you can't be a wiseguy, don't bother being anybody.

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