Toward the beginning of Jodie Foster’s new film Home for the Holidays, a middle-aged woman named Claudia (played by Holly Hunter) shuffles through a Chicago airport on her way to catch a plane to the small town of her childhood, where she’ll spend Thanksgiving with her closest relatives. On her slow, forlorn walk she spots a group of similar middle-aged people standing at a bank of phones and listening to their parents give them grief. A few scenes later, Claudia is squirming in a car with her own mom and dad when she turns her head and sees another middle-aged man in the same predicament. The joke here is simpleno matter how old we get, how smart we are, how far we go in our careers, we are still driven bonkers by our families.
Even though the joke is repeated twice in close proximity, the audience still laughs because the premise is so familiar. Almost anyone who’s ever had parents or uncles or aunts or siblings has scratched his head at some point and wondered what God had in mind when he linked these weird people together. Home for the Holidays is ostensibly about those uneasy feelings, about the way families can become a sort of black hole in the otherwise reasonably ordered life of a grownup.
This may sound like a downbeat concept for a comedy, but it can work if played as high farce or if developed into a well-observed character study. Unfortunately, Home for the Holidays is an uneven hybrid of both, though it is ultimately not enough of either. The script by W.D. Richter, based on a short story by Chris Radant, provides plenty of fresh, witty dialogue, but Foster’s direction is chilly, and her actors, although individually stellar, constantly seem to be working against each other. The film has funny and poignant moments, but it also turns inexplicably bitter, placing too much stock in the unsubstantiated idea that we live in a dysfunctional society. Home for the Holidays begins with universal truthsholidays are stressful, families can be tryingbut after awhile it begins to ring discordantly false.
The problems start with the ensemble, in which each member pitches his or her assigned shtick about a note too high. Holly Hunter brings all of her considerable intelligence and charm to the role of Claudia, but she is asked to spend two hours looking uncomfortable, and it becomes uncomfortable to watch her. Robert Downey Jr., as Claudia’s hyperactive gay Bostonian brother Tommy, has energy to burn and is often very funny, but his inability to shut up can get irritating beyond even the bounds of his character. Cynthia Stevenson, as Claudia’s sister, and Steve Guttenberg, as her husband, have the thankless task of playing the prim defenders of small-town, middle-class values. Geraldine Chaplin, as doddery Aunt Gladys, does what she can with a role that requires her basically to fart and say nutty things, while Dylan McDermott, as Tommy’s blankly handsome friend, is, well, blankly handsome.
The plot revolves around Claudia’s attempt to grit her teeth and survive one weekend with these folksa situation that Richter’s script approaches with good-natured humor and some well made points about how embarrassing it can be to spend time with people who have seen youand always seem to remember youat your absolute worst. Given the quality of the performers, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a cozy, amusing film, but the above actors (under Foster’s orders, to be sure) work in oddly divided ways, spitting out dialogue with deliberate disregard for what the actor next to them is saying.
The result resembles one of those improvisational theater exercises, wherein two drama students are given characters with contradictory motivations and are told by the drama teacher to play out the scene without backing down. Many scenes in Home for the Holidays begin with one actor starting off on a topic, only to be drowned out by another actor on a separate topic. If the characters react to each other at all, it’s only out of anger or exasperation.
If it weren’t for the anchoring presence of Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning, Home for the Holidays would be hopelessly noisy, with each member of the cast merely shouting into a vacuum. Bancroft, as the chain-smoking matriarch of the clan, displays a welcome balance of tenderness and disappointment as she pragmatically tries to keep her family (and, tangentially, her fellow actors) in one pieceat least until the weekend is over. Durning, by contrast, is the very face of acceptance, taking in all his children’s eccentricities with a sweet, perhaps vacant, smile.
That theirs is the only healthy, working relationship for most of the movie is certainly no mistake, just as it’s not entirely the cast’s fault that the actors don’t get to display any chemistry. Foster stacks her deck, playing up the dysfunctionality of middle-class American families until it overwhelms the good humor in Richter’s screenplay. She strives to unearth the real pains and real love at the heart of family life, but, although her attempt is admirable, she’s chosen the wrong script for this experiment.
Foster directs the materialwhich, despite a few moments of jarring psychodrama, is essentially as frothy and appealing as While You Were Sleepingas though it were . Rather than punching up the punny twirls of language in Richter’s script, she emphasizes the moments when characters mumble “What’s the point?” or “Why am I so unhappy?” This unwelcome starkness reaches its apotheosis during the film’s longest set piece, the Thanksgiving dinner. As written, the scene is almost certainly an escalating piece of farce, with various members of the family revealing embarrassing secrets while others do a slow burn. As played, however, it is only intermittently funny, with the accent more on the awkwardness of the situation.
The approach Foster has chosento pick at the scabs of middle-class social conventionsseems increasingly unfair the longer it drags on, both to the comedy that Richter has written and to middle-class life in general. Seen objectively, apart from the flat light of comic exaggeration, these characters have no real reason to dread spending time together. They’re all basically nice people, with decent lives and normal problems.
On some level, Foster realizes this, and so Home for the Holidays lets its audience off the hook with a sweet, happy endinganother in a string of Jodie Foster cinematic cop-outs. Like her near-great directorial debut, Little Man Tate, and last year’s Nell (which she produced), Home for the Holidays backs off its matter-of-fact misanthropy at the last second and goes scrambling for an emotional payoff. Perversely, the undeserved payoff works better than anything else in the movie. The film ends with a montage of real and imagined home movies, illustrating the love from which all families spring. The sequence is so poignant that it almost redeems the entire movie: Just as the anxiety surrounding family gatherings strikes a resonant chord in the audience, so does the need to forgive family members’ flaws.
Home for the Holidays, though, has flaws that are a little harder to forgive. Over the past decade, movie comedies have developed a kind of shorthand wherein family ties equal neurosis’90s humor has replaced the mother-in-law with the mother. What may be happening now is that these shallow pokes at family that prop up in countless sitcoms, greeting cards and cartoons have begun to be accepted as a documentary portrait of our times. Seen from this angle, even Home for the Holidays’ opening observations about the universality of parental nagging seem less funny and more disquieting as the film fades into memory. Scoring humorous points off of the skewedness of family dynamics is one thing, but if those same points are played straight, they become downright insulting.
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