Home for the Holidays (1995): Jodie Foster’s Portrait of Eccentric Family, Starring Anne Bancroft, Holly Hunter, and Robert Downey Jr.

Jodie Foster’s second directorial effort, Home for the Holidays, an affectionately drawn, multi-generational portrait of an eccentric family, is not more impressive than her 1991 feature debut, Little Man Tate, but it’s certainly less ponderous and, on the surface at least, more likable and entertaining.

A saucy, shrewdly selected cast, headed by Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr. and Anne Bancroft, elevate this warmhearted comedy only a notch or two above the level of a well-crafted TV sitcom. Reviewers will probably be divided, but with the right handling and positive word-of-mouth, pic could turn into a solid late fall release.

Foster’s new film is a natural follow-up to Little Man Tate, which also examined an unusual family, a single working-class mom and her genius son desperately trying to connect. This time around, the lead characters aren’t young, though they’re just as problematic and often behave like children. Cashing in on the ritualistic meaning of Thanksgiving, tale centers on an extended clan whose members feel an urge–by ways of kinship and obligation–to congregate year after year for the holiday.
Story begins with what is possibly the worst day in Claudia’s (Hunter) life. Just as she’s about to fly to her folks in Baltimore, she’s fired from her job at the Chicago art museum–and learns that Kitt (Claire Danes), her 15-year-old daughter, plans to lose her virginity during her absence. To make things worse, Claudia has a perpetual fear of flying and is fighting a bad cold. In desperation, she leaves a message on the answering machine of brother Tommy (Downey Jr.) who resides in Boston, begging him to change his plans and nurse her through the much dreaded event.
Once at home, Claudia is treated by her loony parents as a little girl. The ceaseless banter of her list-making, coupon-clipping mom (Bancroft) would drive anyone up the walls. Dad (Charles Durning), too, has his peculiarities, grabbing his wife for a romantic dance while she cooks, washing the neighbors’ cars in the dead of winter, sneaking out in the middle of the night to taste the pumpkin pie.
Small, for the most part well-observed scenes establish the ten or so characters, which for 36 intense hours fight and reconcile, showing their simultaneously endearing and exasperating personalities. They include reckless gay brother Tommy, who lives an “alternative” lifestyle unbeknownst to his folks; humorless married sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), who resents the fact that she has never gotten respect for staying in Baltimore and taking care of the aging parents; senile, spinsterish aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin), who has a penchant for dropping outrageous stories in the most unlikely moments. Some romantic tension prevails between Claudia and Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), a handsome, mysterious stranger who’s brought to the house by Tommy.
In his writing, D.W. Richter vividly captures the paradoxes of family life, its push and pull forces, the eternally conflicted feelings of dread and excitement that going home for the holidays invokes. But despite the likeability quotient of the characters and gifted cast, Home for the Holidays plays like a mildly diverting TV comedy rather than a sharply-etched big-screen presentation. As helmer, Foster seems unable to give the episodic, fragmented film a coherent feel; her prosaic, often irritating picture proceeds scene by scene, with the requisite climaxes and anti-climaxes along the bumpy road.
Holly Hunter’s performance as a lonely woman beset by the “typical” headaches of single mom, is sincerely felt and commanding, without being truly captivating. There are no new notes in her work here, which follows more in the vein of Broadcast News than The Piano. Adding another colorful role to his already striking gallery, Robert Downey Jr. shines–his multi-nuanced portrayal of a gay man is one of the most decent, less stereotypical to be seen on American screens in quite some time.
The older members of the ensemble fare less well. As the chain-smoking, pantry-packing mother, Anne Bancroft is over the top from the first scene, though some of the excesses are in the script; additionally, Foster displays her in an unnecessarily graceless manner. Charles Durning and Geraldine Chaplin have some good moments, but they’re not helped much by the contrived narrative.
Lajos Kalto’s crisp lensing and Andrew McAlpine’s production design underline the uniform style of suburban middle-class life. Early on, there’s a nice scene at the airport, where every single phone booth is occupied by a Claudia-type, each living out the dread of going home. The Baltimore house, where most of the action is set, is located amidst long rows of look-alikes, where family after family goes through the same motions as the Larsons–eating turkey, airing unpleasant laundry, above all irritating each other.
The very last sequence, in which the characters are seen as younger–and presumably happier–with Nat King Cole’s velvety rendition of “The Very Thought of You,” gives the picture an overly sentimental and nostalgic glow.
Pandering to the audience, Home for the Holiday is not so much an uncanny as canned picture, reaffirming viewers’ dreaded anxiety of spending yet another predictably chaotic Thanksgiving in the clutches of their families–while also suggesting the reasons why next year they’ll do the same thing again.
Claudia Larson……Holly Hunter
Tommy Larson…Robert Downey Jr.
Adele Larson…….Anne Bancroft
Henry Larson…..Charles Durning
Leo Fish………Dylan McDermott
Aunt Glady…..Geraldine Chaplin
Joanne Wedman..Cynthia Stevenson
Walter Wedman…Steve Guttenberg
Kitt…………….Claire Danes
Peter Arnold.. .Austin Pendleton
Russell Terziak..David Strathairn
A Paramount Pictures and PolyGram Filmed Entertainment release of an Egg Pictures production. Produced by Peggy Rajski and Jodie Foster. Executive producer, Stuart Kleinman. Directed by Foster. Screenplay, W.D. Richter, based on Chris Radant’s short story. Camera (Eastman, color), Lajos Koltai; editor, Lynzee Klingman; music, Mark Isham; music supervisor, Dawn Soler; production design, Andrew McAlpine; art direction, Jim Tocci; set decoration, Barbara Drake; costume design, Susan Lyall; sound (Dolby), Chris Newman; assistant director, Mike Topoozian; casting, Avi Kaufman.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 103 min.