If you've ever pulled into some little roadside eatery and encountered a waitress who favored you with a smile that made you break out in a silly grin and feel as warm as if you'd taken a sip of brandy, then you know what it's like watching Drew Barrymore in "Home Fries." As Sally, a pregnant burger-joint cashier in a nowhere Texas town, Barrymore beams a slow, dimpled smile that makes you wonder why every man in sight isn't dropping to his knees and proclaiming he's found everything he ever dreamed of in life. She's adorable here, with a curly Shirley Temple mop of red hair and a succession of primly flowered maternity dresses swathing her impending blessed event. In an inspired bit of casting, Shelley Duvall has been given the role of Sally's mother. Barrymore isn't a moonbeam, the way the young Duvall was, but they both share the ability to knock you silly with delight, even as you're staring at them wondering where they could possibly have come from.
There's a sweet, sly joke in having Barrymore bring her distinctively impish sexuality to the role of a hugely pregnant unwed girl. When the rookie fry chef Dorian (Luke Wilson) gazes at her, he sees a beatific vision of motherhood. And that becomes just another strain in the unchained melody she's causing to waft through his noggin. "Home Fries" is certainly the only comedy ever to have its sweethearts fall for each other during a Lamaze class. They start gazing into each other's eyes during breathing exercises, and by the time they get to circular abdomen massage, it's kismet. The director, Dean Parisot, and the screenwriter, Vince Gilligan, don't go soft and gooey on us. During Sally and Dorian's class, the coach, a benign old-hippie type, offers her pupils encouragement along the lines of "Remember, a relaxed jaw means an open vagina." But they don't sacrifice the goofy sweetness of the moment, either. When Sally and Dorian finally smooch, Barrymore draws in her lips in a way that's both shy and not shy at all, as if she'd just done something a bit naughty and isn't a bit sorry.
"Home Fries" belongs to a flaky strain of American comedies, what might be called backwoods screwball. It's in a line with pictures like 1945's "Murder, He Says," where Fred MacMurray runs into a pack of murderous hillbillies headed by Marjorie Main, and more recently, 1988's "Pass the Ammo," in which Bill Paxton does battle with Tim Curry and Annie Potts as a husband-and-wife team of swindling TV evangelists. The shenanigans in "Home Fries" revolve around the absentee father-to-be of Sally's baby. He's a married middle-aged man. He also happens to be Dorian's stepfather. At the request of their mother (Catherine O'Hara), Dorian and his brother Angus (Jake Busey) use their skills as Air National Guardsmen to put the fear of God in their philandering stepdad. They do their job a little too well, and the poor sap has a coronary. But that's not good enough for Mom. She wants the floozy who stole her man as well. And Angus, who's got a bad case of "Mom always liked you best," is gung-ho to finish the job.
Gilligan has written frequently for "The X-Files," and "Home Fries," with its tale of odd goings on in an out-of-the-way burg, sometimes feels like a lighter-spirited version of the show. Gilligan doesn't write jokes exactly. There are throwaway gags, like the workers at a cigarette factory having to go outside to take their smoking break. But he's more interested in the quirks of his characters' behavior (like the hilarious Daryl Mitchell as Roy, who gives Dorian a spiel on putting together burgers and calls it "product assembly") and in dreaming up screwy situations that will let those quirks come out.
Parisot -- whose previous work includes "The Appointments of Dennis Jennings," a short film with comedian Steven Wright, is making his feature debut here, and he doesn't try to force Gilligan's wayward style into formula. He keeps things at an agreeable, ambling pace, the pace of someone with all the time in the world spinning out a tall tale. There are drawbacks to Parisot's approach. "Home Fries" is a little poky, and it doesn't really build. But a movie comedy that manages to be consistently funny without becoming assaultive, and that remains consistently sweet-tempered even at its most macabre (like when Angus is borrowing a corpse's suit to get his brother presentable for their stepfather's wake), isn't so common that we can refuse this one's modest pleasures.
Especially when the director has a feel for how to direct actors. As Dorian and Angus' murderous mom, O'Hara has her best role since "Beetlejuice." O'Hara has always seemed to me as if she'd just beamed in from some slightly skewed parallel universe. Here, even at her most Betty Crocker normal, her slit-eyes have the gleam of a true crazy person. She's the Dragon Lady reincarnated in the body of Florence Henderson, so demented she's serene. The sugary grin she forces herself to direct at Sally is like strychnine packaged in a Happy Meal box. As Angus, Busey doesn't quite resonate in the way he should; he's a bit too toothily malevolent and not much else. And though Wilson could use some more to do -- some clear-cut action that would define Dorian's transition to upright good guy -- his bashful, befuddled manner is winning.
It's Barrymore, though, who makes this little odd duck of a movie as sweet as a perfect glass of lemonade. She's a little slice of heaven touched down in Texas. She has the same effect as the apparition in "A Foggy Day in London Town." You see her standing there, and in a dusty Texas town the sun is shining everywhere.