Most foreign directors who make a name for themselves in America do so first with entries we call ''art-house films.'' I've never liked that term what's the opposite, junk-house movies? Still, you know what the phrase implies: small, poetic, personalized dramas and comedies, often subtitled, that look and feel nothing like American movies, possibly because they're set in Macedonia or France or China and show little boys peeing. They are usually delightful, these emotionally expressive stories so tender, so serious, so funny, so unlike great big, shiny Hollywood smash hits and some of them, boosted by Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, become small-scale successes here. Following which, something remarkable occasionally happens: The directors of those anointed successes are invited by Americans to make a Hollywood movie. And because these directors grew up adoring big, shiny, American products, they jump at the chance. Out of such good intentions come odd fits such as Something to Talk About.
For Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, it happened like this: His 1985 charmer, My Life as a Dog, was an international winner. Six years later, he made an inauspicious American directorial debut with Once Around, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter in a sweet family drama that went nowhere. In 1993, he brought his gentle, empathetic style to What's Eating Gilbert Grape, a felicitous match with Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio that nevertheless withered on the vine. Now this. In Something to Talk About, Julia Roberts plays a Southern gal named Grace who manages the stables of her family's lucrative horse farm for her strong-willed daddy (Robert Duvall, doing a cross between his Great Santini number and his gruff-but-lovable-editor turn in The Paper). Grace's husband, Eddie (Dennis Quaid), is her college sweetheart, and the two live in somnolent, society-approved affluence. But when Grace discovers that Eddie is having an affair, she stomps back to the family spread (taking their young daughter with her), and Finds Herself, with encouragement from her feisty sister (Kyra Sedgwick, the real spitfire in this story and a great casting choice, since she and Roberts look so much alike).
Hallstrom has his hands full. Not only is he working with the first script from feminist torchbearer Callie Khouri since she nabbed an Academy Award for Thelma & Louise three years ago, but he's also handling high-maintenance Hollywood torchbearer Julia Roberts. So what you've got is (1) a pastoral director and (2) an empowerment-promoting screenwriter interpreted by (3) a mysteriously fragile lead actress so expensive and valuable, she looks as if she needs to be restrung each year, like good pearls. And as a result, each contributor's strength cancels out the other. Hallstrom's sensitivity to family ties blunts Khouri's urge to run free. Khouri's bracing impatience with a man's, man's, man's world is muffled by Roberts' inclination toward feminine dewiness. Tack on a jarringly upbeat coda that looks like the kids at the studio demanded a ''happily ever after'' ending before they would agree to put the picture to bed, and Something to Talk About becomes a safe, generic family story of no particular personality. C+