This slickly packaged romantic comedy seemed an incongruous choice to kick off the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, on January 17th in Utah. Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute ten years ago to showcase American independent films and to assist venturesome projects such as El Norte, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez and 84 Charlie Mopic. Once Around arrives with a fat-cat studio (Universal), a lauded Swedish director (Lasse Hallstrom of My Life as a Dog) and a cast headed by Oscar nominees (Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, Danny Aiello, Gena Rowlands).
Is Sundance a sellout? Hardly. Once Around merits its place, but the how-come needs some explaining. Fledgling screenwriter Malia Scotch Marmo met producer Amy Robinson at Sundance in 1981. Scotch Marmo, just out of Boston University, pushed her way in uninvited and made herself useful ("I drove vans and delivered paper towels"). For the next few years, Scotch Marmo studied at Columbia University's graduate school of film, where she wrote Once Around. She sent the script to Robinson and partner Griffin Dunne, who stunned her by optioning it. They also arranged for a 1986 Sundance workshop in which she could iron out the kinks with the help of film experts.
That it took so long to get Once Around on the screen is a hard lesson in the vagaries of production. The film might have been made sooner on a more modest scale, but when the producers persuaded Hallstrom to direct, his interest attracted major stars and a major studio. During the scheduling and contractual hell that ensued, Scotch Marmo made a short film (A Secret Thing) at Columbia, graduated, got married, had a baby and did treatments and rewrites on other movies. What's remarkable is that Scotch Marmo's script did get filmed without losing the simplicity that made it special.
Once Around won't earn points for boldness. But Redford was after more than artistic innovation when he founded Sundance; he wanted to help restore character development to a movie industry dominated by zap-happy technology. And that's where Scotch Marmo fills the bill. The bracing bluntness of her writing makes for a pungently comic and moving love story in which affection and anger get equal time and ring equally true. Sparked by Scotch Marmo's script, a first-rate ensemble of actors brings a large cast of characters to feisty, idiosyncratic life. So the alliance of Once Around and Sundance isn't such a mismatch after all, at least not once you get to know the parties involved.
The same goes for the love mismatch Scotch Marmo sets up in the film. Renata Bella, played by Holly Hunter, comes from a close Italian family living in Boston. Renata is a mess. Her sister, Jan (a pert and sexy Laura San Giacomo), and brother, Tony (Danton Stone), are each married, and she isn't. When her boyfriend dumps her, Renata crawls into bed with her parents — Joe (Danny Aiello) and Marilyn (Gena Rowlands) — and cries.
Renata meets Sam Sharp, played by Richard Dreyfuss, at a Caribbean resort where's she gone to learn how to sell time shares. Renata spots Sam staring out to sea in silence. It's the last time he's quiet. Sam is a supersalesman — an arrogant, wisecracking, take-charge dynamo. What Sam needs is an audience. And that's just what needy, heartsick Renata provides.
Many, myself included, found the romantic pairing of Dreyfuss and Hunter — Mr. and Ms. Nervous Energy — in Steven Spielberg's Always to be the cinematic equivalent of fingernails scraping a blackboard. It was painful to watch them try to be endearing. They seem far more at ease being neurotic in Once Around. It takes getting used to the Boston accent Hunter affects to hide her Georgia roots, but she gives Renata a lovely vibrancy. And Dreyfuss hasn't had this much fun acting obnoxious since The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. They make you grasp what these two misfits see in each other, especially when Sam buys the drab Renata a sexy wardrobe. "Those shoes, that dress, that neckline," he says, putting her hand on his bulging crotch. Sam may be crude, but he loves Renata with a passion, and passion is something Renata craves.
Renata and Sam think they're made for each other. Her family thinks differently, even after the wedding. "Imagine that guy on a day-to-day basis," says Joe, a benign patriarch who dispenses advice, money, favors and blessings, often accompanied by a song. Aiello is wonderful in the role, subtly delineating the indignation of a man being pushed out of the center ring by an outsider who is a broader, coarser version of himself. As his wife, Marilyn, Rowlands is slower to burn. But once she does — the moment comes when Sam tries to take over a memorial service for Joe's mother — her rage is magnificent. It's a jewel of a scene, and Rowlands — in a priceless performance — mines it for every ounce of humor and heartbreak.
Ethnic romances from Abie's Irish Rose to Moonstruck have traveled similar ground, but few have handled the role of family in a marriage more poignantly than Once Around. Scotch Marmo never compromises the bleak undercurrents of the story for the sake of a laugh. When Joe bars Sam from the Bella house and Renata must take a stand, the moment has real force. Even when tears and schmaltz intrude, Scotch Marmo's script and Hallstrom's direction retain a cutting edge. Once Around has the sting of reality. Scotch Marmo won't change the world with her bittersweet fable. But in detailing life from her own uniquely ardent perspective, she does herself and Sundance proud.