Sunday, November 27, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Home for the Holidays (1995)

Holly Hunter
Robert Downey Jr.
Anne Bancroft
Charles Durning
Dylan McDermott
Steve Guttenberg
Cynthia Stevenson
Claudia Danes
Geraldine Chaplin

Directed by
Jodie Foster

If there’s one thing I dread about the Holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, it would be having to go back to work when all the celebration has ended. But not for the reasons you might think.

In some instances, getting back to the grind is almost a relief, or it would be if it wasn’t for that one little bugaboo that irritates the piss out of me. At some point after entering the hollow grounds of  where I work, someone will inevitably ask the dreaded question and I will be expected to answer in a certain manner whether I’m being truthful about it or not.
“How was your Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or New Years etc.)?” They will ask. Upon which I will be expected to tell them how really nice, warm, and glowing, everything was even if the whole holiday was crap. If you dare to tell them that it absolutely sucked in every way possible they will scurry away from you while giving you that “you are the most evil crazy diseased person in the world” look because your Christmas wasn’t filled with the joy of giving while visions of sugar plums danced in your head.

That’s not to say I haven’t had good holidays. But I have this theory that once we pass the age of 12, they get fewer and further in between. Thinking back over the past 40 or fifty years, I might be able to remember 10 or 15 really memorable eventful holidays that occurred during that time if I try really hard.

Here in my adopted California Homeland, The Girlfriend has inherited the dreaded Scrooge gene from her parentage, and although it was recessive for a while, it has now become a dominant character trait, especially over the past three or four years. The first couple of Christmases and Thanksgiving Holidays out here were nice, but since then it’s been a total crap shoot.  One in which I generally roll snake eyes and then roll my own eyes.

I’m sure that some smart ass out there will tell me that you only get out of holidays what you put into them. Try telling that to the Wal-mart customers getting tazered and tear gassed all in the name of great shopping bargains the day after Thanksgiving. See what they got for their efforts?

But really, I shouldn’t complain. It could be worse. One need to look no further than Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) to find that out. It is just before Thanksgiving, and Claudia has the flu. That’s not really a big deal, because she has just done some of her best work for the art museum that she labors for and seems to have finally found real purpose in her work. Her boss, Peter Arnold (Austin Pendleton), calls Holly into his office, but it is not to give her a raise or to praise her work. He does what any boss would do when someone is really putting out maximum effort. He fires her.

Claudia responds in the most negatively novel way one possibly could under such trying circumstances. She begins making out with him.

I’ve been let go more than once in my life. And I never once had the desire to make out with the person that was giving my walking papers. Not even the female ones. I mean, being perfectly honest here, when someone gives you the sack, especially when it’s incredibly unjustified the only thing I could think of was what a dirty rotten bastard they were. So under those circumstances, I don’t think a sexual liaison would ever have been in the cards.

Claudia quickly comes to her senses and regains her composure. She picks her 16 year old daughter Kitt (Claire Danes) up from school, who proceeds to drive them to the airport so that Claudia can fly home to be with her family. This family get together is not something Claudia is looking forward to.

During the drive, Kitt does her best to give mom some encouraging words to help her make it through the holiday.

Kitt:  Okay, what’s wrong?

Claudia: I’m not going to go.

Kitt: I know you hate to fly but it’s okay. The wings won’t fall off. They go through the plane.

Claudia: I know, I know.

Kitt: What is wrong, Mom?

Claudia: Everything, nothing. I had a not so good day today honey.

Kitt: Check out to what you’ve got to look forward to. Cigarettes and junk food. And Gram’s famous stuffing. Right?

Claudia: I can’t do it again. Turn around. Turn this car around.

Kitt: Mom, you’re going.

Claudia: If I go, you go. Your Uncle Tommy won’t be there. And I can’t face the rest of them alone. Not now.

Kitt: Yeah, you’re going. End of discussion.

That Kitt is full of understanding and gracious words of a conciliatory nature.  In other words, she’s a typical 16 year old.   And it’s amazing how quick she can tune into her mother’s problems and understand her distress.  And in case you don’t see it, those last two sentences are dripping with sarcasm.

Before Kitt drives off leaving Mother Claudia at the airport, she does have a bit of her own cheerful news to make Claudia’s Thanksgiving Holiday a truly joyful one.


Oh, Mom.  And I’m going to have sex with Tim. We love each other. You told me that when the time came I’d know it. We talked it out like adults ‘cause we’re not jerks and fully realize this is a major step so we’re not taking this lightly. And I just wanted you to know that, that’s all. That we’re going to do it. That’s all….safely. And not in a car. Happy Thanksgiving, Mom.

Damn! I thought for a moment that Kitt and Tim were going to make the mistake of doing the nasty in the family station wagon. What a disaster that would have been! I’m sure that Claudia’s mind was put at ease knowing that Tim’s mom was not going to be sending her a bill to have the upholstery in the Chevy cleaned and scrubbed.  I suppose Kitt may not be your typical 16 year old about to have sex after all.  I don’t think there are many out there who would tell their mother about it before hand.  That generally happens a month or two later when they have no choice.

Since this is the movies, you know that just when you are about to say, “Things couldn’t possibly get any worse for, Claudia” that’s when things really go into the shitter. On the way to the plane she loses her coat. On the plane she gets stuck sitting next to the chicken leg eating passenger from hell. In a desperate attempt to obtain some sympathy and support, she calls and leaves a message on brother Tommy’s (Robert Downey Jr.) answering machine:


Hi, little brother. It’s your big bad sister. Where are you? I’m on my way to Henry and Adele’s, which I know is the last place on earth you want to drive a million miles in holiday traffic to be at and I don’t blame you. Have Thanksgiving with your friends. I would if I had any which I don’t. ‘cause then I’d have to send them all birthday cards which is a lie of course because you know I’m only looking for pity. Jesus. My, my, my! Shit! I really wish you were going to be there kiddo, because…because I am as sick as a dog, and I made out with my boss, and Kitt’s going to have sex with a teenager, and then I got fired, or the other way around. Whatever, oh my God! Oh my god, I can’t believe I said this to a machine, I hate machines. Please, get rid of this tape. It’s nothing, it’s absolutely no big deal. I’m fine. I just…I just miss you guys. Happy Thanksgiving and give Jack a big, big, big, big, hug for me.

Jack, is Tommy’s boyfriend. Tommy is gay, which is something his family seems to recognize, but doesn’t really want to admit or accept, despite the fact that they really seem to like his partner Jack.

At the airport, Claudia’s parents Henry (Charles Durning) and Adele (Anne Bancroft) are waiting for her. Henry video tapes her arrival as if she were the Pope being greeted at Yankee Stadium.

If the jet ride seemed long, the ride to the house seems longer as Claudia’s parents fill her in on all the little details of their lives that have happened since her last visit, because such information is too important to impart with just a phone call.

Henry is retired, and spends most of his time driving poorly, playing Mr. Fix it, and being under foot. Adele is a mind reader. She brings a coat to the airport just in case (as we already know she has) Claudia loses her own. At home, as Adele laments that her daughter is wasting her talent fixing other people’s art when she could be doing her own paintings, prompting Claudia to suggest she might change jobs. “You’ve been fired,” Adele immediately deduces.
Brother Tommy shows up in the middle of the night, but not with boyfriend Jack. Instead he shows up with Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott) whom everybody including us assumes is gay as well, and that Tommy and Jack must have broken up. Tommy does nothing to dispel that notion either.

Tommy is the type of person that will do everything he possibly can to get on your last nerve, and then find a way to go even beyond that until you want to take a baseball bat to him or commit him to an asylum.

Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin) is borderline nuttier than a fruitcake, grows plants in her house until it resembles an indoor rainforest, wears a necklace made of fruit loops, gives away lamps she won on The Price is Right, passes gas at inopportune moments, and as we find out later has carried a lifelong crush on her brother-in-law. Other than that, she’s harmless.

Last to arrive at this Thanksgiving Family fete is Claudia’s sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), her husband Walter Wedman (Steve Guttenberg), their daughter Brittany (Emily Lloyd) and their son Walt Jr. (Zack Duhame). If Tommy is at one end of the Larson spectrum, Joanne is at the other. She is straight laced, uptight, prim and proper, and always worried about what the neighbors might say.  Her husband Walter is a banker, a stuffed shirt of the worst kind to the point where he has to have his own special turkey. Her daughter Brittany is an obnoxious spoiled brat, and their son Walter Jr. surprisingly seems almost normal compared to the rest of his immediate family.

Joanne is the relative who tries to do everything, although no one asks her to or particularly wants her to, and then complains because she has to do everything.

If Claudia and Tommy grew up as best buddies, Tommy and Joanne seem to have no use for each other once they get past the fact that they are related.  And if they could do away with that fact, chances are they would.

When this motley bunch finally sits down to dinner, it goes without saying that secrets will be revealed, hard feelings will be unleashed, somebody will not be what everybody else thinks they are, and that when the shit hits the fan, turkey’s are going to fly.

Have no fear though. By the end of the movie all will be forgiven, because after all, the Larson's are family and everybody will accept one another as they really are because that’s what families do.

That would be true if this were a Lifetime movie of the week, but Director Jodie Foster is way too astute to fall into that mound of clich├ęd doo-doo. Not only that, she directs with the sure hand of someone who understands how to get the best performances out of her actors.

Just like in real life, nothing really changes.  You are tied to your family by blood, for better or for worse, with all their idiosyncrasies, and every one of their irritating habits, faults, and whatever drama they may bring with them.

You have no choice as to who you are related to. You may think you know your brothers, sisters, in-laws, cousins, aunts, and uncles, but as the years pass and time and distance separates you, you never really do and probably know less about them then you did when you were eight or nine. Sometimes, you may not even particularly like them anymore. Photographs and video’s of family events are a record of what took place, but they are not a record of who we are as a person at any particular time of our lives.

But regardless, friends may come and go, but family ties are the ones that bind us together forever whether we like it or not. So it’s best to just accept each other for better or worse, because you can never lose that connection as much as you may sometimes think you want to or would try to. You are not always going to get along, and all hell may break lose at the Family Reunion, or the Thanksgiving get together, but you’ll get through it and do it again because as Henry says:

”Aw shit…deck the halls…I can’t wait for goddamn Christmas!”
But Adele does him one better:

Steve Guttenberg probably should have made a career out of being a pompous ass rather than churning out Police Academy movies. He’s really good at it. Robert Downey is wild eyed and over the top, part of which may or may not be attributed to his admitted cocaine use at the time. But in this film it works, but does nothing to make him a totally sympathetic character.

Holly Hunter is one of those actors and actresses who just by her mere presence raises the performance level of every one around her. Anne Bancroft as the mother, who loves her offspring, but will never really understand them or will never accept the fact that they didn’t turn out the way she wanted them to be in her grand scheme of things.   Bancroft has always brought her A game to any film she was in and did so here. But the funniest moments easily belong to both Geraldine Chaplin and Charles Durning.

Home for the Holidays one of those films where that you may not get the first time you watch, but as you view it a second or third time, you’ll probably laugh even more at not just the absurdity of some of it, but also the underlying subtle humor you may have missed. But most of all, you’ll find an element of truth here about family, holidays, and trying to survive both during those special times of year that may not always be so great. And when a film manages to do all of that I have no choice but to render it my grade of a B.
Trailer for Home for the Holidays