Not just a pretty woman

Mint ST - - FIRST -

It takes a while to fig­ure out where Home­com­ing is headed. This is partly due to the show’s elab­o­rate and im­pres­sive aerial shots, am­bi­tious over­head vi­su­als of lunch­rooms and lab­o­ra­to­ries. In­for­ma­tion is crammed into the shots in sin­is­terly ef­fi­cient fash­ion, less rem­i­nis­cent of the way Wes An­der­son shoots a diner ta­ble and more like the iconic li­brary shot in All The Pres­i­dent’s Men. We see a world and many, many mov­ing pieces, but this god’s-eye view is hum­bling, if only be­cause we don’t know where to look: is this a labyrinth we are sup­posed to fig­ure out, or merely a Monopoly board mid-game?

Cre­ated by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and based on their pod­cast of the same name, Home­com­ing is an Ama­zon Prime mys­tery about a fa­cil­ity set up to help Amer­i­can sol­diers re­turn­ing from war to tran­si­tion smoothly back into nor­mal life. Ev­ery episode is di­rected by Mr. Ro­bot cre­ator Sam Es­mail, and de­spite an in­tri­cate nar­ra­tive run­ning across two time­lines, the aver­age run­ning time is only a brisk 30 min­utes, mak­ing for 10 grip­ping episodes. An­other rea­son it is com­pelling is be­cause, for the first time ever on a tele­vi­sion se­ries, we—like the re­turn­ing sol­diers—get to be en­rap­tured by Ju­lia Roberts.

The most iconic ac­tress of our time, Roberts is a mo­tion pic­ture force of na­ture with a Cine­mas­cope smile, a per­former who makes act­ing ap­pear so ef­fort­less that peo­ple some­times for­get how good she is. Tele­vi­sion is an in­trigu­ing step for this screen-con­quer­ing leg­end, and Roberts is per­fectly de­ployed by Home­com­ing. It casts her as a cipher—some­one to talk to, some­one to com­fort and soothe trau­ma­tized sol­diers, while bat­ting those tell-me-ev­ery­thing eyes—as well as some­one try­ing to piece to­gether her own past.

The story flits be­tween the past, build­ing up to an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing Roberts’ Heidi Bergman and a young war vet­eran named Wal­ter Cruz, and the fu­ture, where that in­ci­dent is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by an of­fi­cial from the Depart­ment of De­fense, while Heidi works as a wait­ress and doesn’t re­mem­ber what went on at the home­com­ing fa­cil­ity.

The show is gor­geous, with Es­mail and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Tod Camp­bell toy­ing with our sense of pe­riph­eral vi­sion. The “Fu­ture” sec­tions are filmed in a square as­pect ra­tio, as if cropped to fit an In­sta­gram feed, cru­elly leav­ing out in­for­ma­tion. Some­where in there lies a nod to Xavier Dolan’s un­for­get­table 2014 film Mommy, also shot mostly square. The “Past” sec­tions are beau­ti­fully shot in full-screen, with those over­head shots I men­tioned ear­lier and very nifty use of sp screens, but at all times in the show there is a con­stant tilt-shift, with only the cen­tre of the screen truly in fo­cus—sharp 4K HDR fo­cus you can’t ig­nore— while things blur as we look to the top and bot­tom edges. The dif­fer­ence in vi­sion is not only about the then and the now, it is in be­ing able to see. It is as if we are con­sum­ing the story with blink­ers on, which, as with all truly clever mys­ter­ies, we are.

This is a story about para­noia. Cruz’s mother tries to hunt down her son hid­den away in this de­tached fa­cil­ity, and one of the clues she picks up on is that the Geist group bankrolling the Home­com­ing project is also the com­pany that makes her laun­dry de­ter­gent. That ques­tion driv­ing her—why would an FMCG com­pany pos­si­bly want to help peo­ple?—may well be cyn­i­cal but is also im­me­di­ately, un­de­ni­ably re­lat­able. We don’t trust those we buy from.

I wasn’t sold on Mr. Ro­bot. I’d seen that first sea­son twist com­ing a mile away, and Es­mail placed too much em­pha­sis on that rev­e­la­tion. He is more skil­ful with this se­ries, cre­at­ing in­trigue and mood while achiev­ing im­pres­sive nar­ra­tive econ­omy. You can down the first sea­son of Home­com­ing in a day, yet have enough to pon­der and de­bate. It feels like a long-form ver­sion of a truly sat­is­fy­ing Black Mir­ror episode.

The cast is top notch, es­pe­cially Stephan James as Cruz, Sissy Spacek as Heidi’s mother, and Bobby Can­navale as Heidi’s su­per­vi­sor Colin, a man who barks or­ders into tiny ear­pieces as he goes about his life of birth­day par­ties and golf cour­ses, al­ways hands-free but al­ways hands on. Shea Whigham is ter­rific as Thomas Car­rasco, a DOD of­fi­cer at­tack­ing the case with the un­rea­son­able re­lent­less­ness of a man who finds one story par­tic­u­larly itchy, and can’t stop scratch­ing at it.

Roberts is a won­der. There are times when her char­ac­ter puts up with un­wor­thy men, but Roberts lets us see the wheels turn be­hind her eyes. She might not re­mem­ber, but she’s cer­tainly smart enough to bluff through it. Home­com­ing salutes the movie star with spe­cific homages—a hand­some ac­tor from My Best Friends Wed­ding is around, and a con­ver­sa­tion with de­tailed in­struc­tions about a bird can lit­er­ally be called The Pel­i­can Brief—but most so by let­ting her laugh.

That laugh, that glo­ri­ous laugh, has the spon­tane­ity of an outtake. In a scene where Cruz plays a prank on her, Roberts guf­faws as if fooled by the crew around her and not the char­ac­ters. Per­haps she was. We might never know. The world’s great­est smile can also be the world’s great­est hid­ing place.







Stream of Sto­ries is a col­umn on what to watch on­line. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a chil­dren’s adap­ta­tion of The God­fa­ther.


Ju­lia Roberts in ‘Home­com­ing’.

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