Directed by Jodie Foster. Screenplay by W.D. Richter; based upon a short story by Chris Radiant. Produced by Jodie Foster, Peggy Rajski. Music by Mark Isham. Photographed by Lajos Koltai. Edited by Lynzee Klingman. Production designed by Andrew McAlpine. Starring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, Dylan McDermott, Geraldine Chaplin, Steve Guttenberg, Cynthia Stevenson, Claire Danes.
In many ways, each family’s Thanksgiving is different and unique. In another way, every family’s Thanksgiving is essentially the same: there’s the gathering of distant relatives who are only seen on Thanksgiving and random satellite holidays, the copious amounts of food, generous helpings of sports and beer, the tiptoeing around sensitive topics, reaffirmations of old feelings, stirrings of old resentments and also, crucially, the slim hope that each person has of redefining themselves within the terms of the family unit. Sometimes it’s children who want to grow up, and sometimes it’s adults who don’t wish to admit growing old, but eventually we all end up around that same table, our stomachs in knots, our emotions muddied, and in the end, generally wondering what to talk about, how to cope, and where the hell we really came from, anyway.
Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays is a movie that knows this, and knows a lot of other things about how families function during this busiest of times. One would expect it to be simplistic, given how superficially so many other movies treat the subject. But like our own loved ones, Home For The Holidays is far too alive to bother being one-note. It is by turns silly, serious, flaky, sharp, hip, and square. And most importantly, it is true to the rhythms of family life. It successfully captures the secret conversations between sisters and brothers, the furtive looks between daughters and mothers, and the whimsical malaise of a situation and characters that feel lived-in, not drummed up for the purposes of a plot. It feels like these people have grappled with these problems before, and will again, and we only get to see this one occasion. It’s therapeutic, in an odd way.
And with Holly Hunter as its lead, Claudia, the movie finds a compelling center that is not quite comical, not quite tragic. With her furrowed brow, put-upon demeanor and ironic sensibility, she has a sort of dreamy despondency. We meet Claudia in her own little world, listening to headphones as she lovingly restores a painting at a Chicago museum. But she eventually gets pulled out, not just of her tranquil state, but also of the museum (she is fired due to budget cuts). And soon she’s whisked out of Chicago, as she flies home for Thanksgiving, but not before she kisses her boss on the floor of his office and then, as she gets dropped off at the airport, hears her daughter’s overly-considered plan for losing her own virginity. You might think this all sounds more like the grinding gears of the first act of a screenplay than real life, but it oddly doesn’t play that way…it feels madcap but touchingly genuine.
Eventually, as Claudia arrives home, the screenplay draws together its roster of peculiar, particular people. We meet Claudia’s parents, who show the rare quality of behaving not like “movie” parents (with exaggerated tics that are “funny” or “dramatic”), but actual parents, with concerns that are not overblown, and fears that are quiet and gently articulated. It’s still funny, but the comedy is tilted towards a recognizable place. There’s Claudia’s sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her husband Walter (Steve Guttenberg), who practice passive-aggression like secondary careers. They have two kids who feel like real kids, and many of the adults practically ignore them because of course they would. And then there is Claudia’s energetic and glib brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), who is capable of so many left-field zingers and curious flights of fancy that you would swear he was played by Robert Downey Jr. Tommy is Claudia’s companion of choice within the family, and you can see why: with her glum demeanor and his endless ability at amusing himself, they complement each other, and are cozy in a way that suggests a yin/yang wavelength.
Tommy is gay. In most movies that would be the end of what we learn about him. And it would be issue. The issue, in fact. Not here. Here, Tommy’s sexuality is only a piece of the larger Tommy puzzle, which is refreshing. So many movie characters are gay and exist to be gay, while in this one Tommy is gay and it’s not that a big deal. It’s a point of contention for many in the family, but that’s their hang-up; not his, and not the movie’s. Tommy brings a friend with him, Leo (Dylan McDermott), to dinner, and Claudia, attracted to him, mistakes him (quite reasonably) for being likewise gay. He’s not, and when that’s resolved, it’s not with an earth-shattering declaration and cheap humor, but just with genial correction. It’s shrugged off. As it really would be amongst people this bright and sophisticated. Is it really that big a deal to be mistaken for gay, anyway? Of course not. What matters are feelings, not silly labels.
McDermott’s character comes to symbolize a release for Claudia, as they fall in—well, I wouldn’t call in love. Can you really fall in love with someone in a day? But they certainly fall in heavy-duty like, and it has a low-key charm as they gently try this relationship thing out. Of course, in every movie that involves airports and flights, there is always the last minute plot development of who is on what plane, and when, and why…and McDermott, though fine in the role, doesn’t really project the passion and intelligence that make us believe he would be a good fit for the fickle, aloof Claudia, but the love story still works on a basic level.
W.D. Richter’s screenplay is…well, it’s slightly a mess, in the way it pauses for asides, and odd little moments and really takes its time. That’s a compliment. It feels real. I love the little scene when Claudia, out shopping with her brother, meets an old high school classmate who, just like back then, manages to make her feel two inches tall, even though both women are making a show of being far more mature now. And then Tommy comes in, sizes up the situation, and then quickly shifts the conversation in Claudia’s favor with a choice remark, dripping with acid. It’s not just a funny scene, but it sketches an entire history and multiple relationships with just a few strokes. Or how about the tiny moment where Claudia shares a beer with her dad, who says “I don’t have any of that fancy stuff?” That’s exactly the kind of thing a guy like him would say.
The film has an unpolished quality that reflects the disorganized chatter of a Thanksgiving meal—I like the way the film doesn’t overdevelop the B-plot about Claire Danes’ virginity, resolving it in a single scene (though the movie, by virtue of her disconnection from the other plotlines, does criminally underuse Danes). I like how Claudia’s Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin) is allowed to approach the realms of caricature but then pulls back. And I especially enjoy the bittersweet thread of Claudia’s relationship with the ornery Joanne, which feels almost definitive in its pointed lack of finality. Listen to Joanne, summing up her relationship to her sister: “If I just met you on the street, if you gave me your phone number…I would throw it away.” Harsh. But listen underneath the words and you can hear the growing realization, for both women, that this is a projection: Joanne’s current unhappiness is not Claudia’s fault, nor vice-versa.
Home for the Holidays was only Jodie Foster’s second film as a director (the first was 1991’s Little Man Tate), and in a way you can sense the firm hand of an actor guiding the production: the movie gives every performer a plum assignment, even David Strathairn in a bit part as an old crush of Claudia’s (everyone’s reactions to his appearance are so terribly cruel but also true and very funny). You can hear wicked improvisation creeping into the dialogue, especially whenever Downey is on screen (this movie reportedly ignited his improvisational talents, which is now his most cherished gift). And in tricky scenes where there are a dozen people on screen, Foster’s direction leaps through the thick dialogue with joy, not like an overwhelmed traffic cop (many directors aren’t as lucky). Despite the movie’s big list of name actors, it was probably not very expensive, and that’s an asset: it has the feel of a movie that has exactly the right amount of movie to go where it wants to and ends how it has to, without any phony sweet stuff.
It’s perhaps inevitable that everyone will have at least one lousy holiday in their lives. Some have more than one. It is one of life’s great ironies that the times of year most intended to promote comraderie and love so often produce discord and strife. But despite it all, very few of us would ever allow the luxury of separating from our families, because sometimes they put us off, and other times they put us in our place. And movies like this one do an especially good job, this time of year, of reminding us that despite any amount of disfunction, it is still often important to make that trek home, and to put up with people that sometimes we hate, if only because they know us too well. “We don’t have to like each other,” Claudia says to her sister. “We’re family.” Makes perfect sense to me.
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