Director Jodie Foster dishes up a “heaping helping of holiday hilarity” (NBC-TV) with this laugh-out-loud comedy from screenwriter W.D. Richter about family food and finding acceptance with the people you love. Home For The Holidays is a “wickedly funny” film that’s “so true it hurts” (“Entertainment Today”)!
In a span of 36 hours, Claudia Larson (Hunter) has managed to lose her job, make out with her boss and learn that her daughter (Danes) is planning to go all the way. But Claudia’s fortunes actually take a turn for the worse when she flies home to endure an even more grueling trial: The family Thanksgiving! Beset by a neurotic mother (Bancroft), kooky father (Durning), eccentric brother (Downey, Jr.) and compulsively “normal” sister (Stevenson), Claudia struggles to maintain her calm. But as sparks fly, tempers flare and turkeys go airborne, Claudia manages to recapture the zaniness of her childhood and discover them most important things in life are the memories she shares with family… and for that, she can only be thankful!
I had seen this one before, and had a tepid impression of it, but I decided to give it another try after time blurred my recollection. I figured that it might be worth giving it as second chace – after all, my opinion of it 10-15 years ago might very well be dramatically different.
‘Home for the Holidays’ is a dramedy about family, and it mostly takes place in one location (i.e. it could easily be a play) over 2-3 days. So there’s not much to discuss, development-wise – it’s all about the actors’ performances and the interactions between their characters.
The film is broken up in small ‘chapters’, so-to-speak, for comedic purposes and to punctuate the flow. Thus, to punctuate this commentary, I decided to take my inspiration from the film’s own ‘chapter’ intertitles.
Holy Hunter plays Claudia Larson, an art restorator who is having problems at work, is dealing with her daughter becoming an adult and who dreads going back home for the holidays – both because she has to take a plane, and because of what awaits her.
For me, the film took a little while to take flight. It started off sitcom-y, unfortunately, which immediately hampered its credibility (it’s possible to mix humour in with your drama without resorting to slapstick or contrivances that aren’t life-like – Woody Allen and Billy Wilder, for instance, have proven it time and time again).
But it eventually got its feet on the ground and made it feel real. Until then, my only anchor was Claire Danes, who played Hunter’s daughter to perfection. Hunter, sadly, wasn’t as tremendous as she can be – she floated between varying degrees of believability.
Mom and Dad
The real stars of the film are the parents. The moment that they pick up Claudia at the airport and you feel the years of baggage between the three of them, you know that, given enough screen time, they will surely make Thanksgiving really “special”.
While her character is difficult to like, Anne Bancroft’s Adele Larson has teeth. She may not be the mother one would dream of, still not affording her children the respect that they deserve in adulthood, but you get this immutable sense that she is just holding for dear life – that she’s as damaged as they are and doesn’t know how to help herself.
Henry Larson has recently retired and, despite his omnipresent bonhomie, he finds himself at odds with Adele – they haven’t been alone together in forever and each other’s habits irritates the other. Charles Durning gives us a nostalgic man who lives in his own world, just trying to enjoy his life.
Tommy Larson soon makes his appearance, with his side-kick Leo Fish in tow. Robert Downey, jr. inhabits his character quite well, but he makes him so exuberant that I kept wondering if the character was on something (this is not established in the film, but very few people can keep up this level of energy for lengths of time without some help ).
There is confusion in the family about his relationship to Leo (who is played here with characteristic waxiness by Dylan McDermott), seeing as he’s had a long time relationship with Jack – who is nowhere to be found. Leo confuses things even more by being friendlier than expected to Claudia.
Geraldine Chaplin disappears completely in the role of Aunt Glady. While I’ve seen her in but a few movies, I’d always found her out of place, awkward. Here, she plays up that quality and turns her character into a very memorable oddball who steals pretty much every scene she’s in.
She remains an uncomfortable presence, however, but I believe that this is the purpose of the role in the first place – she’s the family member that everyone likes but would rather forget. Whether they want to or not, she is completely unforgettable!
And, in pretty much any family, there are members that bring tension to the proceedings. Here, they are represented by the prissy Joanne and her uptight husband Walter Wedman. They are accompanied, evidently, by their children: the invisible son and the princess daughter.
I always like Cynthia Stevenson whenever I see her on screen. Here she brings depth to Joanne, who could easily have turned out to solely be an @$$hole. Instead, I got this impression of a emotionally-pained woman who is simply trying to keep up appearances, to steel herself – if not for others, then for her own sanity.
Meanwhile, Steve Guttenberg sulks his way through every single scene he’s in, whether he’s got a line or not. Without a doubt, this non-actor is the biggest casting error of the film; he can puppy-dog his way out of films like ‘Police Academy’, but there’s no place for his anesthetized mug in a serious film.
His tugs-of-war with Tommy lost all meaning because there was no seriousness to be had with a clown on one end of the rope. And, when all you want to do is beat that clown over the head with a giant foam mallet, there’s no way to be engaged in a scene. I think I would have even preferred Keanu Reeves to him. Coming from me, that says a lot.
With any self-respecting Thanksgiving dinner, there is the inevitable moment that the turkey must be carved. But what is one to do when there are two, because someone in the family doesn’t like mom’s cooking? Or how does one cope with a bird that simply cannot be carved without force?
And what if the family, lovingly assembled around a table for their yearly gathering, starts to disintegrate? What if the sister-in-law starts professing her love for her brother-in-law? What if the siblings end up humiliating each other at the table? What if a parent clashes with the kids?
All one can do is pick themselves up (and everyone else, if need be) and carry on. Hopefully everyone will forget what happened soon enough – or, at the very least, promise to forgive in the New Year.
For my part, I can’t forgive or forget the editing in here. For a film that was made on a 20 million dollar budget, I’m surprised by how lacklustre the continuity was – it was all too clear that some scenes were made up from different takes.
The staging was also a bit weak. I don’t know if it was a lack of experience or simply a different vision, but I found that Foster set up some of the scenes in ways that sucked the life out of them. With a script of such potential, it’s a shame that the end result didn’t have any edge.
I guess this is the moment where everything is wrapped up; everything that didn’t fit in the rest of the piece is thrown in here. Basically, this part of the film is the Tupperware full of Thanksgiving leftovers.
Some people like leftovers. I do. But I don’t like them in my plotlines much – especially when there’s tons of congealed fat that could have been tossed. Here’s a segment that was more filler than killer; I would have reduced it to one small scene.
‘Home for the Holidays’ provides us with more to reflect on than actual answers, but if it’s about anything at all, it’s about the meaning of “family”, and what family means to us. It challenges the traditional definition of “family” in a couple of instances, but I feel it does so justly and maturely.
It’s also about all those little moments that we wish we could hold on to forever, the ones that year-in/year-out we try to recreate with varying degrees of success. It may be impossible to do, but they’re small bits of happiness that we try to tap into to enhance our everyday lives with.
‘Home for the Holidays’ would be far more enjoyable if not for the contrivances that make it feel unnatural. But then, the same could be said for these types of family gathering – the ones wherein people who rarely see each other are wedged together to try to relive a long-gone past.
It serves to prove that you can toss a bunch of really good actors together, and it doesn’t guarantee movie magic. Similarly, you can also put a bunch of really good people together, and this doesn’t necessarily make a family.