Brow Beat

How Homecoming Makes a Weapon out of Julia Roberts’ Smile

We spend most of the season waiting for it to be unleashed, but when it is, it’s more creepy than comforting.

Julia Roberts not smiling, in a still from Homecoming.

This article contains spoilers for Homecoming through Episode 8.

Julia Roberts’ smile is maintained with baking soda. It sells perfume. It is insured for $30 million. Despite what the San Francisco Chronicle says, however, it is not starring in Amazon’s new TV series Homecoming.

In her review last week, Willa Paskin noted that Roberts’ role as Heidi, a social worker running the eponymous and somewhat mysterious program for military veterans, “never gives [Roberts] occasion to go full-smile charming.” Even Homecoming’s promotional photography alerts the viewer not to expect a light romp. This faintly pleasant expression is, for Heidi, close to giddiness.

Julia Roberts as Heidi in a counseling session.

In our present day, Heidi is the chief administrator and counselor at Homecoming, a government contractor that purportedly prepares combat veterans to re-enter civilian life, and her limited emotional range conforms to her assignment. Fresh off getting a midlife master’s in social work, Heidi needs to be warm with her clients, but not so appealing that she’d risk crossing professional lines. She has a boyfriend, Anthony (Dermot Mulroney), but seems to have no interest in sharing joyful moments with him. Her most intimate relationship is with her boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale), and since her initial job interview, they only communicate over the phone. She’s engaged in important work. No part of her can be frivolous or even lighthearted.

But scenes set several years later, where Heidi is a waitress with grown-out bangs at a grimy seafood restaurant, make it clear that something has gone horribly wrong—something bad enough to wipe all memory of Homecoming from her mind. At Homecoming, Heidi is confident, cheery, even flirtatious, especially with her client Walter (Stephan James). But years-later Heidi is glum and gray and never cracks so much as a hint of that famous smile.

It turns out that rather than simply forcing Roberts to suppress her natural or at least easily accessible charisma, Homecoming is holding it in reserve, lest breaking it out too early relieve the sense of dread the show is building. Like the squarish aspect ratio that makes the years-later sequences feel constrained and repressive, post-Homecoming Heidi’s downcast demeanor is a set of chains the show is just waiting to shed.

It makes for a huge departure for Roberts, whose smile has anchored so many of her most indelible characters. The post-Homecoming Heidi may work as a restaurant server, but not one who’s trying to ingratiate herself to customers like Daisy in Mystic Pizza. We certainly see Heidi do as much weeping as Shelby does in Steel Magnolias, minus any smiles bravely shining through her tragic tears. Forget a guffaw like Vivian’s in Pretty Woman.

When Roberts starred in 1999’s Notting Hill, she had been, if not the most famous woman acting in films, then at least one of the top five for a dozen years. The story plays on Roberts’ real-life image as she portrays Anna Scott, a very famous movie star whose chance meeting of a bookstore owner named William (Hugh Grant) changes both their lives. Moments after William gives Anna a place to change out of the shirt he’s ruined with orange juice and she thanks him with a kiss, he learns that his roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans) has rented one of her films, Gramercy Park. In the scene we see, Anna’s character is trailed through an art gallery by her partner (Matthew Modine), who keeps ordering her: “Smile.” “No,” she tells him. “I’ve got nothing to smile about.” He sits next to her on a bench and says, “In about seven seconds, I’m going to ask you to marry me.” The camera rests on her as she registers what he’s said—and, at last, she smiles.

Julia Roberts smiling in Notting Hill's film-within-a-film, Gramercy Park.

Unaware of the assignation that occurred there mere hours earlier, Spike muses, “Imagine: Somewhere in the world, there’s a man who’s allowed to kiss her.” William and Anna run up against multiple rom-com obstacles before William races through the streets of London to break into her press conference and declare his love, and the movie ends with three minutes of Julia Roberts flashing her smile in a variety of settings and situations. Anna’s not just “a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her”; she’s an international icon whose microexpressions make news.

Watching Roberts grimace through so much of Homecoming put me in mind of another icon cast against type: Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl. Aniston had been playing Rachel Green on Friends for the better part of a decade when she was cast to play Justine, the bored and unhappy discount-store clerk at the center of Mike White’s screenplay. But director Miguel Arteta was adamant that she not bring into the film any of her Rachel mannerisms: “She is a very happy person in real life. Her hands go up when you talk to her. And in this film, she had to play someone who hated life and was kind of depressed. She wore wrist weights and ankle weights for a month before the film. She is a physical performer, and she really transformed her body for the role. There were times when the hands were going up and I had to say, ‘Sit on your hands!’ ” Was Roberts similarly directed to bite the insides of her cheeks?

Toward the end of Homecoming’s Episode 7, “Test,” Colin admits to Heidi that the purpose of the program is not to prepare veterans to return to civilian life; it’s to “delete” the trauma they’ve experienced so that they can be redeployed. Heidi is shattered. (If Heidi has qualms about working within a system that would otherwise send “fresh” service members to suffer their own traumas in an apparently endless war, it’s something the series does not elucidate.)

In the following episode, “Protocol,” Heidi goes straight from her alarming conversation with Colin into Homecoming’s reception area, where the new clients are waiting for intake. At first, Heidi is too rattled to recite her falsely reassuring speech, and her colleague Craig (Alex Karpovsky) tries to send her to her office lest her manner worry the new program participants. But after a brief false start, Heidi delivers the lines she’s scripted for herself …

Julia Roberts as Heidi, grinning in a fake, creepy way.

… and closes with a grin. But not quite the grin. For these characters, who don’t know her, such a beaming welcome would put them at ease. But for the audience, it’s doubly unsettling. Heidi’s putting on a performance for a project she now knows is corrupt; her teeth are showing, but her eyes are dead. And on top of that, the audience brings to the moment the knowledge accrued from having watched Julia Roberts smile on screen for 30 years. We know what we’re supposed to feel when she does it, and it’s not like this. We might not realize that we had been waiting all this time for Julia Roberts to favor us with her smile until we’re confronted by its grotesque parody. Then again, have we viewers really ever seen Julia Roberts smile “for real”? Hasn’t she always been performing her joy to elicit an emotional response?

Julia Roberts as Heidi, gulping and looking upset.

Is this the moment we must re-evaluate what we have, for decades, taken to be a reliable version of reality? Maybe we should follow Homecoming’s advice and just delete this traumatic knowledge from our own memories.