EVERY now and then, a movie appears that audiences don't just enjoy but fall crazily in love with. That happened a few years ago with ``My Life as a Dog,'' a bittersweet story about growing up slightly absurd, directed by a young Swedish filmmaker named Lasse Hallstr"om. I felt that picture was a little obvious and sentimental at times, but it was certainly a strong debut effort by a promising director. Also impressive was the acclaim it earned from art-minded spectators - its American premi`ere was in New York's prestigious New Directors/New Films festival sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art - as well as casual entertainment fans. So like moviegoers everywhere, I was curious to see what Mr. Hallstr"om's first American film would look like.
It has now arrived, under the title ``Once Around,'' and unexpectedly it looks just like a standard Hollywood movie. True, there are touches of imagination and sparkle to reassure us that the talented Hallstr"om really directed it. And it was unveiled with a flourish as the opening-night attraction in this year's Sundance Film Festival, reflecting the fact that Malia Scotch Marmo's screenplay was developed in the Sundance Institute's respected program for independent film projects. Yet despite such credentials, the picture doesn't have enough special qualities to lift it significantly above the usual run of Hollywood productions.
The theme of ``Once Around'' is that old standby, the May-December romance. Holly Hunter is the May half, a young Bostonian who's consumed with anxiety that true love and marriage are going to pass her by for some reason, so she'd better grab the first decent opportunity that comes along. Richard Dreyfuss is December, a real-estate entrepreneur with lots of money and a go-getter attitude that never quits.
He'd be a great catch for our heroine, except for two things. He's a little old, which means they get funny looks when they go out as a couple. And more important, he's kind of obnoxious. He means well, and he's always good-natured, but his personality is awfully creepy at times - and his new girlfriend's family can't stand him, which causes big problems, since she's always been close to her parents and wants to stay that way.
The last time Ms. Hunter and Mr. Dreyfuss teamed up was for Steven Spielberg's soporific ``Always,'' one of the droopiest movies to appear from a major filmmaker in recent memory. It's hard to imagine that anyone was itching to see them paired again, but they manage to work well together in their new venture. Dreyfuss makes his character irritating without making you want to flee the theater, and Hunter captures some of the energetic charm she had in ``Broadcast News,'' still her most memorable screen vehicle. A gifted supporting cast backs them up, particularly the great Gena Rowlands as Hunter's mom and Danny Aiello as her dad, a rough-and-ready guy who's made his way out of the working class without losing a solid, no-nonsense outlook on life.
It's too bad the movie doesn't live up to these performers. It strains too hard to be cute and fetching, and the ending is particularly weak, killing off one of the characters just so the heroine can demonstrate how much stronger and more mature she's become.
Life isn't that simple, but Hollywood movies are. And that's what ``Once Around'' is - pure Hollywood, even if it was directed by a talented Swede who's surely capable of more original things.