"When you go home do you ever look around and wonder, Who are these people? Where did I even come from?"
As I get older, my fondness for the oddball comedy that is Home for the Holidays grows. While my family has never been as dysfunctional as the Larson family and it's assorted in-laws, it feels familiar and there are elements of it I recognize and am able to relate to my own life. It's a film about family coming together for Thanksgiving dinner and all the assorted dramas that come with it. It's a film that is forever part of my own Thanksgiving tradition, if only because it makes me more thankful for the family that I do have.
The film centers on Claudia Larson (played by Holly Hunter), who is not having a great Thanksgiving holiday. As the film opens, she finds out from her boss (played by Austin Pendleton) that she is being laid off. Her daughter, Kit (played by Claire Danes) is ditching her to spend Thanksgiving with her boyfriend. She is dreading having to spend the weekend with her parents and her snobby sister, Joanne (played by Cynthia Stevenson), thinking her beloved brother Tommy (played by Robert Downey Jr.) won't be there. She relays all these feelings to Tommy's answering machine when she calls him from the plane. Before long, she has landed and is greeted at the gate by her parents, Henry (played by Charles Durning) and Adele (played by Anne Bancroft). She gets along reasonably well with her parents, who both have their eccentricities. Dad loves playing his organ and sneaking pumpkin pie, whereas Mom seems to treat Dear Abby as a great philosopher.
Of course, much to her surprise, Tommy shows up late that night surprising everyone, with a friend in tow, Leo (played by Dylan McDermott). Claudia at first thinks Leo is with Tommy (Tommy is gay), but it's quickly revealed Tommy brought Leo for Claudia. Ever so briefly things are looking up for Claudia. Then, more relatives arrive. First, there's the batty Aunt Gladys (played by Geraldine Chaplin) Then there's Joanne, along with her husband Walter (played by Steve Guttenberg) and her two bratty kids. Joanne pictures herself as the family martyr, proclaiming to her sister how she has sacrificed so much staying close to home while her siblings went off to live their "exotic little lives." It's a Thanksgiving to remember as this family dinner seems poised for disaster.
The film is directed by Jodie Foster from a script by WD Richter. Foster does a good job crafting a familiar Thanksgiving setting and making the family dynamics feel real and even familiar. Holly Hunter does well in the main role, as is Robert Downey Jr as Tommy (all the more impressive since this was at the height of his drug years). Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning do well as the parents, balancing their character's eccentricities with real, genuine performances, which you'd expect from two seasoned pros. You really buy these two as a long married couple with the way they act together. In fact, the whole family works well together, which is why the film works for me, you buy that they're a family that has history together.
While Home for the Holidays is a comedy, it has an underpinning of truth to it as well that I really responded to. While I don't know if anyone has a family quite as dysfunctional as this, there's still something about it that feels oddly familiar without directly relating to something in the film. The film is really about making peace with your family and your parents and accepting one another for who they are, rather than trying to make each other live up to each others expectations, which is what the Larson family slowly learns that Thanksgiving. Well, most of them anyway. And maybe that's the best message of all.