Home for the Holidays
The first time my mother and I watched Jodie Foster’s Thanksgiving film, “Home for the Holidays,” 20 years ago, neither of us liked it. It was unpleasant, not terribly funny, and a miserable experience to watch, not the least because it felt like a waste of the talents of Foster and her lead actress, Holly Hunter. As I write this review, it occurs to me that the description of the film I just made resembles how many people can describe Thanksgiving, in general. Seen as I make my way to 40, and more importantly, as someone who watched Foster’s third film as a director, “The Beaver,” I can appreciate the film more now than I did then, but I still find it kind of miserable to watch, and not terribly focused. A common theme of dysfunctional families struggling through life comes through, though, that makes it easier to understand Foster’s interest in the film.
Holly Hunter stars as Claudia Larson, an artist who has been working as an art restorer at a Chicago museum until her boss (Austin Pendleton) fires her, although there is a brief makeout session afterwards, which Claudia feels uncomfortable with. She is then taken to the airport by her daughter (Claire Danes), who drops a bomb that she will possibly be sleeping with her boyfriend while Claudia is out of town. While on her flight, Claudia desparately calls her brother, Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), in hopes he will make it over to their parents to help save her for Thanksgiving. Her parents, played by Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning, are there to meet her, and some peace is found before Tommy and a friend (Leo, played by Dylan McDermott) sneak in at night to startle them. The big day arrives the next day, and with the addition of Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin) and sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her family, the dysfunction really ramps up during the meal.
I wonder whether part of what made this so difficult for my mother and I was because the previous year brought an end to what could have been a good yearly tradition for our family. Even though it marked the end of potentially something special, it’s hard not to identify with what Foster and writer W.D. Richter, adapting a short story by Chris Radant, have going on here. This is uncomfortable to watch, but extremely well performed by an over-qualified cast. (Foster’s name, no doubt, resulted in her pick of actors, despite only having directed one film, 1991’s “Little Man Tate,” previously.) The two best performances come from Hunter, who upon second viewing gives one of her best performances, and Downey Jr. as her smart-ass brother, whose sexuality brings out some of the tensions on Thanksgiving day. The tensions feel authentic and plausible, even if it dulls the humor for me. The screenplay, however, lacks focus, even with Claudia as the clear main character, which is a big part of why it doesn’t work in the long run.