It's night in the middle of nowhere, in a town with no sides of the track. Eight-months-pregnant Burger-Matic cashier Sally (Drew Barrymore) fends off her married lover Henry (Chris Ellis), who, on his way home, is chased into a heart attack by an overly Dolby-ed Cobra helicopter piloted by Air National Guard reservists Dorian (Luke Wilson) and Angus (Jake Busey), who are Henry's stepson and son, respectively, acting on the orders of his murderously jealous wife Beatice (Catherine O'Hara). Angus forces Dorian to get a job at the fast-food joint, managed by Billy (Kim Robillard), to see if the pair's exploits were seen or heard (over the workers' headsets). Naturally, Dorian falls for Sally, even while Beatrice urges the gung-ho Angus to find the floozy Henry was sleeping with and waste her.

Working from a script by Vince Gilligan (who won a 1988 Virginia screenwriting contest with it-which judge (and now producer) Mark Johnson kept in his drawer while Gilligan prospered on TV's 'The X-Files), director Dean Parisot takes far too long to find his footing in Home Fries, his first feature after a workmanlike slew of short films and episodic TV. For instance, the opening bit between Henry and Sally falls flat as one of the burgers, but it segues into the ultra-realistic chasing and killing of Henry by the copter, which leads into the cops' jokey discovery of the body the next morning. The only clue to the film's intended tone is the dumb-cute music track, which labors throughout to tell us what to make of all this stuff.

Apart from a few moments, the situations and dialogue aren't clever enough for the push-pull genre-wringing of, say, Tarantino or Altman, and the movie never really starts cooking until the infomercial-like Lamaze class (to which Sally takes the near-stranger Dorian as her partner since, well, there's no one else). This is a fine scene, finely played, by far the highlight of the film, although it also determines what we've already guessed, that the pair will fall in love into a predictable outcome. What's interesting is pretty much unintentional, centering in the film's performances, which are excellent indeed. Catherine O'Hara is so mendaciously evil, and scarily so, that she pushes the movie out of comedy (and believability) into melodrama-unfortunate, as she is the sole plot drive. In fact, the film superbly opens up all sorts of dysfunctional familial anguish that, undealt with outside of laugh fodder, simply overpowers the movie. The leads work together OK even if they both remain actorish-Barrymore, as usual in her non-tart parts, putting on her kewpie-doll face here topped with Raggedy Ann hair, and Wilson, coming off Bottle Rocket and looking eerily like a young Scott Wilson. Busey mixes militarist with psychotic tendencies in very funny style, while Daryl Mitchell has some hilarious bits explaining the Burger-Matic procedures to Dorian. The too rarely seen Shelley Duvall and Lanny Flaherty play Sally's scrummy parents.

Hardly aimed at packing in the tourists, the film was shot in Bastrop and Coupland, Texas (but not set there), which production designer Barry Robison and costumer Jill Ohanneson have dumbed down into witty trailer-trash authenticity that never calls attention to itself, as so often happens in such fare (including writer Gilligan's earlier dud, Wilder Napalm). Cinematography by Jerzy Zielinski is also spot-on, even if it seems perpetually cloudy in this miserable town. The roster of producers boasts some heavyweights, including Lawrence Kasdan, Barry Levinson, his crony Charles Newirth and ex-crony (now indie) Mark Johnson.

--David Bartholomew