"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Home for the Holidays

Christmas holiday movies are a dime a dozen but how many Thanksgiving movies are there? Sure, many are set during this holiday but Home for the Holidays (1995) is the Thanksgiving movie. Director Jodie Foster captures the hassle and the horror of traveling during the holidays and presents an instantly relatable premise: going home for Thanksgiving dinner and having to put up with your relatives. Everyone has been stuck next to that annoying person on a long plane ride or have had to deal with a crowded airport or stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Everybody has a Thanksgiving history and stories that go with it. Home for the Holidays collects several of these stories into one entertaining movie.

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. Downey’s introduction ranks right up there with Jack Black’s equally memorable first appearance in High Fidelity (2000). He’s the mischievous sibling who knows exactly which buttons to push to drive his sisters crazy and Downey plays the role with obvious glee as evident from the way he works the kitchen, improvising his ass off as he interacts with the cast, most memorably Anne Bancroft (“Spin mommy, spin.”), during his whirlwind introduction. Foster remembers that, “the cast pretty much stuck to the script once we had honed it down. The only person I let make up whatever he wanted was Robert Downey Jr. He just has this incredibly fertile mind.” The scene where Tommy tells the story about how Leo once injured his nose is a brilliant bit of comic acting on Downey’s part that is hilarious and slightly disgusting simultaneously. Only he has the fearless conviction to pull off this kind of throwaway anecdote that typifies the kind of gems that are peppered throughout Home for the Holidays.
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 Downey 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.

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.”

Holiday movies are like Madlibs: they present a structure and archetypes for you to impart your own experiences. Home for the Holidays contains every archetypal character so that you can identify with at least one if not many of the characters. Richter’s script perfectly captures the dysfunctional family that everyone experiences on some level, like how parents know just what to say to get under your skin. The dialogue is idiosyncratic yet very familiar and memorable, especially everything Downey says. It has a conversational tone that is delivered naturally by the excellent ensemble cast. The film also doesn’t follow the usual beats associated with this kind of movie. For example, early on Claudia’s mother reads to her a Dear Abby letter and the tone of the film shifts to a melancholic one for a few minutes before veering back into comedy.

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 Downey'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.”

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.


Allen, Tom. "Becoming Jodie Foster." Moviemaker. December 2, 1995.

Bibby, Patricia. "Jodie Foster Looks Home to Heal." Associated Press. November 12, 1995.

Hunter, Stephen. "Foster Feels at Home Adding Fun, Meaning to Holidays Clan." Baltimore Sun. November 19, 1995.

Kirkland, Bruce. "Downey to Earth." Toronto Sun. November 6, 1995.

Portman, Jamie. "Home for the Holidays No Ordinary Family Film." Montreal Gazette. October 31, 1995.

Young, Paul F. "Foster Moves Home to Par." Variety. November 19, 1995.

Here's an excerpt from the original short story that the film is based on.


  1. Great write-up. I really enjoyed this film. It was awesome to see a movie set at Thanksgiving and not at Christmas. This movie had it all. It had drama, comedy, etc. The entire cast was amazing it. I did really enjoy Robert Downey Jr. I'm a big fan of his anyway. Even if a movie sucks (which this did not), he's usually still good in it. Jodie Forster did a fantastic job with this film. Thanks for posting it. Makes me wanna watch it again.

  2. Thanks, Keith! Yeah, I love this film, esp. for Robert Downey who just steals every scene he's in. That's not to say the rest of the cast isn't wonderful, 'cos they are. It really is a fantastic ensemble piece. As you point out, it has it all: comedy, drama, and so on. Plus, I certainly see a lot of my own family in some of the characters.

  3. I adore this film...absolutely adore it. It actually has a lot of special meaning to me for reasons I won't go into here, and I think it is tragic Jodie hasn't directed again.
    The moment at the end where she shows the special moments in the characters lives not captured on camera is one of the most moving statements on the power of cinema I have ever seen.
    Great write up...I am sure you have listened to Jodie's commentary on the disc but just in case don't miss it. She comes across as super intelligent and super passionate.
    God, I love this film...Viva Jodie Foster!

  4. Jeremy:

    "...It actually has a lot of special meaning to me for reasons I won't go into here, and I think it is tragic Jodie hasn't directed again..."

    I agree! I was so bummed that she hasn't been able to get FLORA PLUM off the ground. I do agree with you about the HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS having special, personal meaning. That's how I feel about it too. It really strikes a chord with me which is probably why I keep coming back to it year after year.

    "The moment at the end where she shows the special moments in the characters lives not captured on camera is one of the most moving statements on the power of cinema I have ever seen."

    I love that scene too. You're right, it is very moving and comes at just the right moment in the film.

    Thank you for the enthusiastic response! I have listened to Foster's commentary on the DVD and you're right about it. Altho, at times, she came across as a tad bitter about her own family. She doesn't go into any details (of course) but one gets the impression that there is some definite tension there. Weird.

  5. I really like that movie as well. Excellent read! Now my holiday has officially began.

  6. Cinema Du Meep:

    Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it and are a fan of this film. It's a keeper.

  7. Well sir, my wife is particularly a big fan of this one, and I've had her over here to read your typically thorough and enthusiastic assesment. I agree with what you say about Downey's first appearance fueling the film, and applaud you for offering this up in such a timely fashion.

    Hope you had a nice break up there in the northlands, my friend!

  8. Sam Juliano:

    Thank you for the kind words and well wishes! Downey is so good in this film. Can't praise his performanc enough.

  9. JD,

    Really late to this one [never too late right?]. I've not seen the film, but it sounds like it's worth a viewing especially considering the fact I always considered PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES as THE Thanksgiving movie. Another film which holds up to repeat viewing.

    Speaking of which I hope you had a nice one.


  10. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Hey, better late than never!

    I do like PLANES, TRAINS as well but, for me, HOME just edges it out thanks to Robert Downey's inspired performance. PIECES OF APRIL is another decent Thanksgiving film also.