You wouldn't know it from the title and Warner's young-love trailer, but "Home Fries," starring Drew Barrymore, is a black comedy about a latter-day Ma Barker who cajoles her grown boys into killing their philandering stepdad.

You wouldn’t know it from the title and Warner’s young-love trailer, but “Home Fries,” starring Drew Barrymore, is a black comedy about a latter-day Ma Barker who cajoles her grown boys into killing their philandering stepdad. Gonzo elements are kept to a minimum in favor of more macabre moments that should leave target audience scratching its collective head. Barrymore’s profile will get this one open, but nasty tone and zero chemistry between star and her leading man, Luke Wilson, will mean fast-food shelf life.

Texas-set pic — produced by Barry Levinson and Lawrence Kasdan, among others — opens with so much thunder and testosterone that ticket-holders will wonder if they wandered into the wrong theater. Setup has weekend warrior Cobra helicopter pilots Dorian (Wilson) and Angus (Jake Busey) strafing the woods at night as a lone man runs for his life. The guy is scared stiff. So much for the comedy quotient.

How does Sally (Barrymore), a pregnant cashier at the local Burger-Matic, figure in this? A landslide of contrivance and coincidence pulls it all together: The fly-by victim was the father of Barrymore’s baby. His out-for-vengeance wife (Catherine O’Hara) deployed her boys to scare the two-timer to death. Complications ensue: Burger-Matic and Cobra headsets are on the same radio frequency, and Barrymore and co-workers may have heard all.

Angus’ harebrained scheme: Have Dorian infiltrate the eatery as a new employee and figure out who knows what. As Dorian falls for Sally (no one initially knows she was stepdad’s mistress), Mama Lever (O’Hara) and wild-eyed Angus plot further mayhem. Everything is resolved (well, thrown together, anyway) after a noisy return visit by Angus in a Cobra attack ship, which Dorian tells Sally was dubbed “the muttering death” by Vietcong.

Such left-field asides sum up what’s wrong with the picture, a pitch-black comedy masquerading as yet another playful, teen-oriented Barrymore vehicle, which WB is calling “an off-center romantic comedy.”

Helmer Dean Parisot, an Oscar winner in the live-action short category who makes his feature bow, shows a definite flair for macabre touches: He has almost as much fun with the corpses as Hitchcock did with the title character in “The Trouble With Harry.” In one scene, the investigating officer poses with a body; in another, Dorian borrows a jacket from a funeral-home stiff. Writer Vince Gilligan lets drop, via Angus, a reference to the “Lamb to the Slaughter” episode of the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV anthology.

While plot elements don’t add up, film’s energy level remains high, and oddball ensemble brings to mind a classic of this type, Jonathan Demme’s “Citizens Band.” Barrymore gives the feisty single-mom role her all, even if she always appears to be in a more serious slice-of-life. Busey continues carving a name for himself as Hollywood’s best wacko. O’Hara, usually squandered on dutiful-wife roles, has fun overplaying the grief-stricken (for appearance’s sake) widow. Pained-looking Wilson is strictly of the Ricky Nelson School of Acting.

Shelley Duvall, in an all-too- rare movie role, turns up as Sally’s chain-smoking, trailer-trash mom, and Lanny Flaherty plays her redneck dad, who, in one not-so-riotous scene, holds Burger-Matic patrons hostage. Kim Robillard and Daryl Mitchell have brief but funny bits as Burger-Matic’s out-of-it manager and “product-assembly” expert, respectively.

Tech credits throughout are ultra-efficient, always overpowering the flimsy excuse for a plot. Cobra attacks make full use of wall-quaking Dolby Digital/DTS and, like much else here, are better suited to a Simpson-Bruckheimer assault.

Home Fries

(COMEDY)

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Mark Johnson/Baltimore Pictures/Kasdan Pictures production. Produced by Johnson, Barry Levinson, Lawrence Kasdan, Charles Newirth. Executive producer, Romi Lassally. Directed by Dean Parisot. Screenplay, Vince Gilligan.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Jerzy Zielinski; editor, Nicholas C. Smith; music, Rachel Portman; production designer, Barry Robison; art director, Phil Dagort; set designer, Andrew Menzies; costume designer, Jill Ohanneson; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Jennifer Murphy; associate producer, Susann Jones; assistant director, Michael Waxman; casting, Jill Greenberg Sands, Debra Zane. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 17, 1998. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Sally - Drew Barrymore Dorian - Luke Wilson Mrs. Lever - Catherine O'Hara Angus - Jake Busey Mrs. Jackson - Shelley Duvall Billy - Kim Robillard Roy - Daryl Mitchell Red - Lanny Flaherty Henry Lever - Chris Ellis Sheriff - Blue Deckert
Camera (Technicolor), Jerzy Zielinski; editor, Nicholas C. Smith; music, Rachel Portman; production designer, Barry Robison; art director, Phil Dagort; set designer, Andrew Menzies; costume designer, Jill Ohanneson; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Jennifer Murphy; associate producer, Susann Jones; assistant director, Michael Waxman; casting, Jill Greenberg Sands, Debra Zane. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 17, 1998. Running time: 93 MIN.

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