Coming home, again

It's Thanksgiving 1972, and a year after returning to his upper-middle-class Texas home, Vietnam vet Jeremy Collier (Emilio Estevez) is still reeling from his war experiences. Living at home and listlessly taking a few community college courses, he has grown only more alienated from normal society. His mother, Maurine (Kathy Bates), is an insufferable chatterbox who spews lamebrained religious homilies; his stern but loving father, Bob (Martin Sheen), isn't as egregious an airhead, but he still can't understand his son's anger and depression. Sister Karen (Kimberly Williams) thinks her college psych classes give her insight into Jeremy's condition.

When Jeremy boycotts Thanksgiving dinner, all of his family's denied pathology comes to a head in an explosion of hostility and violence.

Star Estevez--perhaps hoping it would do for his career what Apocalypse Now and Platoon did for his father's and brother's--also directed The War at Home, a sensitive reworking of James Duff's play, Homefront. (Call him the last Sheen out of Saigon.) His direction is a great leap beyond his work in Wisdom and Men at Work: Although the staging generally reveals the project's theatrical origins, there's just the right minimal amount of opening up. And although Jeremy is the nominal protagonist, the other three characters really get most of the good material; everyone does uniformly good work, which again reflects well on the director.

The handling of the script's tricky tone shifts is also impressive; scenes abruptly slide from dark comedy to serious emotion with no loss of credibility. While there isn't anything wrong with The War at Home, there are two problems (one unavoidable) that slightly reduce its effectiveness. Where the play apparently had early hints of its climactic revelation, the film plays its cards closer to the vest. When the revelation comes, it's not just a surprise; it almost contradicts what we have seen of the characters. The unavoidable problem is that, no matter how well made and insightful, The War at Home retreads a story that has been told numerous times since the Vietnam War--and innumerable times before that. It's basically an expansion of Ernest Hemingway's terse, early short story, Soldier's Home. The details may be different--and a lot of them aren't--but the basic idea is the same. And it's hard to imagine anyone improving on Hemingway's brutal, concise rendition.

The War at Home. Emelio Estevez, Kathy Bates, Martin Sheen, Kimberly Williams. Written by James Duff, from his play, Homefront. Directed by Emelio Estevez. Opens November 22.


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