REVIEW: Julia Roberts Is Ready To Risk It All In “Homecoming”

As the daughter of a Naval Lieutenant who spent a year in Afghanistan, I felt very connected to the “Homecoming” series, particularly Stephan James’ impeccable portrayal of veteran, Walter Cruz. Following his tour of duty, my father shared with me that there were mandatory counseling sessions to assess his ability to return to work. Watching “Homecoming”, I felt as if I gained more insight into what my father went through.

Adapted from the popular podcast of the same name, the 10-episode first season created by Micah Bloomberg, Eli Horowitz and Sam Esmail premieres on Amazon Prime Video November 2nd. Within her three decades of acting, this is Academy Award winning actress, Julia Roberts first starring role in a television series. Roberts plays Heidi Bergman who we’re initially introduced to as a waitress at a small diner off a boat dock. We soon learn that in her not so distant past, Heidi was a clinical counselor at the privatized Homecoming rehabilitation facility for soldiers who’ve recently returned from serving overseas.

Stephan James as Walter Cruz and Julia Roberts as Heidi Bergman in “Homecoming”

Heidi is a 180 from some of Roberts more outspoken roles where she stands out for her infectious smile and boisterous personality.

At times it seems as if she’s trying too hard to be the passive, non-confrontational counselor. Particularly, in scenes opposite of her boss, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale).

Even though Heidi is severely under qualified for the position, during her job interview she promises if hired, “…to devote my life to the work.” Colin takes this line literally and preys on Heidi’s inexperience by making her an unwitting pawn in his plot to falsify data in efforts to move up the ranks at the Geist corporation as well as increase the programs lucrative military contract at the expense of the veterans well-being.

When Department of Defense Inspector Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whingham) begins investigating the program’s implosion, the audience goes on a winding ride through Heidi’s memory as she tries to piece together her own truth. At the center of Thomas’ investigation is whether or not Heidi knows Walter.

Stephan James was an excellent casting choice and should be an Emmy contender for his astounding portrayal of Walter Cruz. Even with his young face and innocent mannerisms, his charismatic and astute demeanor makes Heidi vulnerable and giddy in his presence. She was enamored by his storytelling, at times it was like he was the shrink and she was the patient. Their onscreen chemistry was dynamic and intense to watch. He skillfully recited extensive monologues akin to Viola Davis along side Meryl Streep in the Oscar nominated film, “Doubt”.

Shea Whingham as Defense Inspector Thomas Carrasco in “Homecoming”

While James always held my attention when he was on screen with his monologues, one in particular about a sequel to “Titanic” that was amusing to watch, it did become somewhat monotonous to leave Walter to do “a lot of heavy lifting” (as mentioned in my exclusive interview with actor, Stephan James.)

His frequent 10-minutes of scene work could have easily been distributed to some of the other soldiers who were regulated to background acting and were props to fill scenes as opposed to actually being integrated within the story.

My main critique of “Homecoming” was that within the 10-episodes, Heidi never saw any other patients. Her first and only patient was Walter. It was implied that she was the only counselor for the whole program so the audience should have seen a revolving door of counseling sessions but that wasn’t shown. At the minimum, it would have been a welcomed break from the stillness of the episodes to show scenes with Heidi and Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) who’s high strung, high anxiety, paranoid personality was in stark contrast from Walter’s childlike optimism.

White is deserving of a supporting actor Emmy nomination because his presence was so powerful, I didn’t realize that he was only in three episodes. White truly embodied his character and I wish I would have had the opportunity to speak with him during the recent press junket to learn about his process of getting into character.

With Heidi having such a timid and passive personality, it would have been great to see her interact with Shrier–would she have kept the same energy or would it have fluctuated? What if during their sessions, Shrier developed a crush on Heidi all the while, Heidi wants to be with Walter…?

Stephan James “Walter” and Jeremy Allen White “Shrier”

There was ample room within the series for the writers to have expounded upon Shrier’s storyline. He was an underutilized character but as an actor, White made the absolute most of his screen time. We last see Shrier raking leaves. As a viewer, I wish that the audience could have learned more about his backstory and his upbringing by meeting his family, the same way we met Walter’s mom.

I would be remiss to conclude the review without acknowledging the need for another Best Supporting Actress Emmy to be given to Marianne Jean-Baptiste who was brilliant in the role of Walter’s mother, Gloria.

Hats off to the “Homecoming” writers for going a step beyond simply creating “African American” characters, Walter and Gloria were Haitian and when together, spoke in their native language. (Stephan and I talk about the character’s “extra layers” in our interview) As someone of French & Haitian descent, it was amazing to see a series that was culturally diverse with Afro-Caribbean characters as well as a powerful Asian woman via Hong Chau’s role as Audrey Temple.

The scenes with Heidi and Gloria are my favorite because Jean-Baptiste isn’t typecast as an “angry black woman” but instead a concerned mother who’s fiercely protective over her son. Their intense and revelatory scene at Gloria’s home would have been a great place to end the season. Instead we get an epilogue or what felt like a “post-credits scene” where we see that Heidi and Walter have the strong potentiality of ending up happily ever after. For the prior nine episodes to have a dark undertone i.e the same cinematographer and Art Director as “Mr. Robot”, I wasn’t ready for the bright lights of the finale.

Julia Roberts as “Heidi Bergman”

There are times when several episodes dragged and if some of the b-roll shots that were seemingly added for time warp emphasis were cut, 8-episodes would have sufficed.

There were some storylines left somewhat opened ended i.e the fate of Colin at Geist and whether or not Inspector Carrasco stays at the Department of Defense.

Moreover, I wish I hadn’t of known that Heidi and Walter would cross paths again but one or both of them may still be reeling from the side effects of their experience at the facility…

Now that we’ve established the overall premise of the series, whether we pick up where it left off or the slate is wiped clean for a whole new anthology, I hope that within season 2, the pacing picks up and there’s more Stephan James.

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