Home for the Holidays is not your typical celebratory, feel good time of the year film you pop in, turn on and plunk down with family and friends to rejoice all that you have, had or never will. It is billed as a comedy-drama which is about right for director Jodie Foster who has had a considerable career on both sides of the camera to draw from, not to mention a life of times from which to navigate the many highs and lows of the human spirit. Of course everything is right there in the screenplay, aptly penned by W.D. Richter (Big Trouble in Little China, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) based on the short story by Chris Radant with both Foster and long time pal and associate Peggy Rajski (The Grifters, Little Man Tate) producing. The irony doesn’t stop there, if you were wondering, the sorts of things only a cast of nearly doomed actors (Robert Downey Jr.) saved before the last jail cell clang, could really bring to a film about family. The score is sentimental for most of the right reasons and Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai frames character not action, place in place of landscape. The film succeeds by plumbing the infinite well of personal tragedies magnified at holiday time, brought out into the open above tables filled with turkey, stuffing and heightened emotions that always seem the most apropos while simultaneously wounding the heart with tears of joy and smiles of revelation.
Ensemble films are often mangled during the casting process whereby the perfect leads are undermined by supporting staff and extras handpicked from a list of walking dead. In this case the stars are in near perfect alignment beginning with Holly Hunter, the iron man who needs no introduction Robert Downey Jr., the ineffable Anne Bancroft, everyman father Charles Durning, tall, dark and handsome Dylan McDermott, and character actors Geraldine Chaplin, Steve Guttenberg and Cynthia Stevenson as the family of families gathered for a special kind of truth or dare that is poignant, personal and certainly drawn a little from almost everyone. Again, this is probably not the film you grab for chums and guffaws over cheesecake and apple butter while toasting the joys of togetherness, but it rings so true knowing at the end of a very long table of likes and differences, we’ve all said too much and not enough, chosen unwisely and not taken long enough, especially at those most special times of the year when we do our best not to show our worst for the holidays.
Like all good family comedies about family dramas, the story focuses on parenthood and the brittle fractures that threaten perfection, revealing fallibility. The characters are both familiar and unique, specific and recognizable in audiences from all walks and persuasions, or lack thereof. There is much-needed comedy of errors and manners, especially when people are forced to confront conduct unbecoming or perceived that way when facing the estranged brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Claudia Larson (Hunter) is a single mom facing unemployment and a teenager destined for greatness and ruin away from home. Claudia goes ‘home for the holidays’ where she’ll be joined by her uptight sister and her family, her misunderstood and closeted gay brother Tommy (Downey Jr.), and of course her parents Adele (Bancroft) and Henry (Durning) are there to keep everyone from killing themselves until after dueling turkey dinners. What unravels slowly, necessarily is what always seems to bring us together and send us packing, as people converge and old wounds surface just about the time people arrive, desperate to get out of there. Everyone has either been this family or spent time in one, found themselves locked elbow to elbow with others who can’t find a single good thing to say about your lifestyle choices, connected in odd and uncharacteristic chit-chat while eating too much and drinking just over the legal limit of civility and candor. It is all these barbs and diamonds that infuse this film with a genuineness that’s hard to deny and often welcomed in this era of superficiality and bankrupt idealism.
If you’ve made it this long without such catastrophe and near miss, mid-air collisions of the heart you’re not dead yet. Films like this give us plenty of pause knowing we’re not entirely from another planet any more than there are things we can learn about one another and make our shared times something more than they invariably become. Perhaps that wasn’t at all what Jodie Foster was after, certainly not suggesting to have the answers to familial bliss. If anything it’s almost charming to find a film so brave as to rely entirely on the cumulative brilliance of performance and the collective talents of actors capturing so effortlessly the camaraderie of friends and enemies united by blood, circumstances and pages on a calendar.