Julia Roberts meets 'Mr. Robot' vibe in 'Homecoming'

Julia Roberts is the marquee name, but "Mr. Robot" creator Sam Esmail provides the defining presence in "Hom...

Posted: Nov 1, 2018 8:02 PM
Updated: Nov 1, 2018 8:02 PM

Julia Roberts is the marquee name, but "Mr. Robot" creator Sam Esmail provides the defining presence in "Homecoming," whose creepy vibe and unreliable protagonist greatly echo that other paranoid conspiracy thriller. Slow at first, the 10-episode Amazon series finds its groove in later episodes, which explore the kind of provocative themes that make this feel like a "Black Mirror" installment stretched into miniseries form.

In the early going, "Homecoming" might be a bit too cute for its own good, from the eerie music to staging what amounts to a "My Best Friend's Wedding" reunion by having Dermot Mulroney play Roberts' boyfriend. Moreover, the show's oscillating time frame -- flitting back and forth between the past and present -- can be a trifle discombobulating at first.

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Julia Roberts

Robots and robotics

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Stick with it, though, and the series -- shrewdly diced into concise half-hour chapters -- becomes more than just "Mr. Robot" meets "In Treatment," although there are elements of that.

Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, the counselor at Homecoming, a facility treating soldiers who are recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That was then, of course, when Heidi had a tightly wound coworker ("Girls'" Alex Karpovsky), a shady absentee boss (Bobby Canavale, another "Robot" alum) and one particular patient (Stephan James) whose fate especially mattered to her.

Flash ahead, and Heidi is working as a waitress, seemingly oblivious to everything that transpired in her past, even when a Department of Defense investigator (Shea Whigham) begins nosing around into what happened.

The memory lapses mirror "Mr. Robot," where the audience sees things through the perspective of a character whose own perceptions are not always trustworthy. Here, Esmail -- working with writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who created the show -- brings a bit more discipline and momentum to the story, which hinges on the mystery surrounding what Homecoming, described in corporate-speak as "A Geist Initiative," really had in mind for these soldiers, and why.

The stated goal, Heidi's told, is to "treat PTSD like a cancer," something to be "eradicated, not just managed." It's pretty clear, however, that Cannavale's ultra-caffeinated CEO harbors ulterior motives, while Heidi's current state of affairs fuels the mystery regarding how she got from there to here.

"Homecoming" doesn't entirely hold together down the home stretch, but Roberts is very good as a character trying to putty in the gaps about what she did, and who might have paid the price for that. The format, moreover, is especially welcome in terms of not stretching the suspense out beyond the story's relatively slim weight.

There are various ways for streaming services and networks to stand out in such a crowded environment, and casting a "Movie Star" like Roberts, in caps, is certainly one strategy to get people's attention.

"Homecoming," fortunately, makes that bet pay off as more than just a shiny object, but a compelling series in its own right -- one that features plenty of "Mr. Robot's" wiring, but with enough of its own wrinkles and surprises to avoid feeling as if it rolled off the assembly line.

"Homecoming" premieres Nov. 2 on Amazon.

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