January 28, 1991 12:00 PM

Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter

How you feel about Once Around will depend on how you vote on the half-full, half-empty glass of water question, since this is a half-entertaining, half-baffling movie.

It is the work of Swedish director Lasse (My Life as a Dog) Hallstrom and writer Malia Scotch Marmo, a newcomer from East Boston, Mass. The film centers on an Italian family in Boston. Danny (Do the Right Thing) Aiello is the father, Gena (Another Woman) Rowlands the mother, and Hunter (Always) and Laura (Pretty Woman) San Giacomo the daughters.

Dreyfuss, playing a mindless but mega-successful real estate salesman, enters the picture when he starts to court Hunter.

This is a cast to conjure with, and everybody gets off a brilliant riff or two. Rowlands, slimmed down and alluring enough to be on a Vogue cover, is especially striking.

Hallstrom and Scotch Marmo, however, keep sending their actors and the audience on various emotional wild-goose chases. Aiello, for instance, seems all but catatonic for half the movie, then retires from his job as a contractor, for no apparent reason. Hints about Dreyfuss’s being a con man keep being dropped and left to lie there. Slapstick comedy bumps into soap operatic melodrama in a way reminiscent of Terms of Endearment, except in that film the comedy was funnier, the melodrama more sensible.

Every once in a while there’s a redeeming flash, such as Hunter telling pre-Dreyfuss beau Griffin Dunne, “I want you to fall on your knees and beg me to marry you. Tell me that I’m the woman who can change your life.” He responds, after a neatly timed pause, “I think my life is pretty good.”

Too much dialogue, though, seems culled from the reject pile at a fortune cookie factory. Dreyfuss says, “Dogs can’t make their dreams come true. So people have to.” Hunter tells Aiello, “This is my adventure, Dad. my goddamned adventure. If you don’t get it, well, I’m sorry.”

Then there’s Hallstrom’s obsession with carousel shots: The screen does enough spinning to send the tender-stomached in the crowd heading for the rest room. When you’re not sure if you should laugh or cry at a movie but are sure you feel like throwing up, it’s not a good sign. (R)

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