Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) is having the worst Thanksgiving ever. She has just been fired from her job, made out with her 60-year-old boss and found out that her daughter Kit (Claire Danes) is going to have sex for the first time. To add insult to injury, Claudia is going to spend Thanksgiving with her parents. Her mother (Anne Bancroft) reads Dear Abby and constantly nags her daughter (“Claudia, I can see your roots.”) while her father (Charles Durning) has selective deafness and weaves in and out of lanes of traffic. The antagonists are represented by Claudia’s sister Jo Ann (Cynthia Stevenson), her boring husband (Steve Guttenberg) and their annoying kids. They provide the friction and conflict, exposing Jo Ann and Claudia’s deep-rooted sibling rivalry issues.
The film really comes to life when Robert Downey Jr. as Claudia’s gay brother Tommy arrives with his business partner, Leo “Go” Fish (Dylan McDermott) in tow.
Geraldine Chaplin, as the family’s eccentric Aunt Glady, all but steals every scene she’s in with her surreal non-sequiters (“Wanna see a really big boil?”) and matches
for memorable comedic moments in the movie. For example, there is a scene where Glady tells a story at dinner that stops things cold as she speaks wistfully about how, one Christmas Eve, Claudia’s father kissed her and for one moment she felt special like how she imagined her sister felt. It’s a scene that starts off funny and then becomes poignant thanks to Chaplin’s heartfelt performance. Foster remembers that she “came up with wonderful choices in Holidays. She was the most eccentric character of the bunch, so I allowed her to push a little bit more some of those strange behaviors. But I didn't want to push the other actors into wacky, campy idiosyncratic levels. These are real people; they're complicated, but they are very real.” David Strathairn even pops up for a memorable cameo as Russell “Sad Sack” Terziak, a guy with the worst hard luck story, ever. It’s a rare comedic turn as the veteran character actor is cast against type. He is able to put a slightly tragic and uncomfortable spin on his scene. Downey
Castle Rock was originally going to finance the film but canceled and Foster’s own production company, Egg Productions, acquired W.D. Richter’s screenplay. She worked with him on it so that the film ultimately reflects her point-of-view and her own life experience. She spent two weeks rehearsing with her cast before principal photography began in February 1995. Foster used this time to get input from the actors about dialogue – if a scene or speech did not ring true, she wanted to be told. According to Richter, “We all drive each other nuts at holidays like Thanksgiving. I think there is great tragedy and great humor in that. I wanted some sense of a family pulling together in spite of all the problems.”
Foster sets up an idealistic façade but balances it with a realistic depiction of the family dynamic. Richter’s script nails the interplay between retired parents and how they constantly nag each other but really do love one another. And there are the little details that ring true, like how Claudia’s mother makes lists of things to get or do. Sure enough, by dinner time there’s a big blow out argument as old grudges come to the surface. The friction between Tommy and Jo Ann echoes those old arguments that we’ve all had with siblings when one was eight years old and then comes bubbling to the surface whenever you get together with them, no matter how much time has passed. Regardless of all the bad mojo – Tommy having been secretly married to his boyfriend (Chad Lowe), Claudia guilty over being fired and Jo Ann’s bitter resentment with her two free-spirited siblings – coming together for dinner will, they hope, resolve some of these issues. It is a moment where the film gets serious as real issues and true feelings are addressed but it is consistent with what came before and doesn’t take you out of the film. Like real life, some issues are resolved and some aren’t. According to Foster, “At no point did I want the comedy so raucous and exaggerated that you could not believe in it. I wanted people to be able and look at it and say, ‘This is life.’”
The film received mixed reviews but most of the major newspaper critics liked it. In his three and half star review, Roger Ebert praised Foster's ability to direct "the film with a sure eye for the revealing little natural moment," and
's performance that "brings out all the complexities of a character who has used a quick wit to keep the world's hurts at arm's length." Janet Maslin, in her review for The New York Times, praised Holly Hunter's performance: "Displaying a dizziness more mannered than the cool, crisp intelligence she shows in Copycat, Ms. Hunter still holds together Home for the Holidays with a sympathetic performance.” However, in her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley criticized some of the performances: " Downey brings a lot of energy to the role, but his antics can be both tedious and distracting. Hunter has a lovely scene with her disgruntled sister, but there's no time for that relationship to develop, what with a romantic interest yet to explore.” USA Today gave Home for the Holidays three out of four stars and wrote, “Home has the usual hellish ritual. They come, they eat, they argue, they leave. It’s the stuffing in-between that makes it special.” Downey
Home for the Holidays is not a straight-out comedy because it does have its moments of reflection and even a melancholic tinge of nostalgia. One of its underlying themes is the old chestnut that the more things change, the more we want them to stay the same. That is what makes this film so good. These characters will always be there for us to revisit and enjoy time and time again. Foster’s film has a timeless quality that allows it to endure and hold up to repeated viewings. No matter how much you’ve changed, you revert to your old self when you come home for Thanksgiving.
Here's an excerpt from the original short story that the film is based on.