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Brian De Palma Week: Home Movies is a committed dark comedy

Brian De Palma Week: Home Movies is a committed dark comedy

Thanks to the Summer Movie Wager, Andy used his victory bet to assign us to each write about Brian de Palma!

“Luckily, I was hit by an ambulance and they rushed me right to the hospital!” gushes a breathy Kristina (Nancy Allen) in one of the funniest lines in Home Movies, Brian DePalma’s black comedy from 1979. This underseen film, made with his students at Sarah Lawrence College (his alma mater), is more curious than good—but it has some worthwhile elements. 

Denis (Keith Gordon) is “an extra in his own life,” according to “The Maestro,” (Kirk Douglas), a pompous film professor. Douglas gives a shrewd comic performance. He is merciless with his students—he punches one in the first five minutes—and pops up periodically to mistreat Denis (even pushing him out of a tree in one scene).

Denis’s self-esteem problems stem from the fact that his wacky family ignores him. When his mother (Mary Davenport) catches him making out with a girl he claims they are practicing life-saving skills—Denis soon realizes that she is not upset with him, but, rather, with his cheating father (Vincent Gardenia, deliciously oily). 

And while Denis wants to help his mother secure a divorce, she inexplicably favors his nutjob brother, James (Gerrit Graham), a pretentious teacher of “Spartanetics,” which emphasizes men as Gods. 

Graham’s James is the comic high point of Home Movies. He name-drops Leni Riefenstahl and Mickey Spillane in one speech to his students, and is amusingly cryptic about his teachings, stating only, “Those who know…know.” 

James is hilarious because DePalma skewers his toxic hypermasculinity. He mistreats Kristina, his fiancé, and, in a dumb subplot, makes her resist various temptations to prove herself worthy of his love. (He’s more in love with himself than with her). In one bizarre episode, James sniffs out the junk food Kristina consumed against his wishes. Graham goes all in here, giving a wildly physical performance and he’s fantastic. He often plays James like a live-action cartoon character. Just watch his bug-eyed expressions when he gets his jaw dislocated by his father in one scene. (This also leads to him making some mastication jokes). Or a bit where he saves Kristina from choking by removing a piece of meat from her throat with his tongue. 

DePalma mines humor from exaggeration and absurdity, and while not all of the jokes land well—and the musical score is far too aggressive—the actors are committed. Allen, too, goes for broke, especially in a bit involving her sexual exchanges with a rabbit. Gordon is appealing in the trite role of a sensitive young man in love with his brother’s girlfriend. Unfortunately, multiple scenes of him in blackface—he’s disguised to take secret photos of his dad cheating on his mom with his nurse—are both unfunny and offensive.  

Home Movies has a cheap, low-budget feel to it, but that contributes to its offbeat charm. DePalma may be in a laid-back, low-key mode here, but he still manages some stylish moments. The aforementioned choking scene, the fast food sniffing sequence, and the bit where Kristina is hit by the ambulance, have a darkly comic-horror tone to them. 

This film may be a footnote in DePalma’s eclectic career, but it shows his ability to coax nifty performances from a game cast—even if the material is subpar. 

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