The 1990s had no shortage of dysfunctional family movies, but Jodie Foster's second (and still most recent) directorial effort Home for the Holidays (1995) sends them all packing by bringing the family together for Thanksgiving dinner. Most movies in this genre handle the wide tapestry of characters by assigning them one-dimensional, easily defined personality types, but Foster and her screenwriter, the great W.D. "Rick" Richter, fit in dozens of remarkable little moments that bring everyone into three-dimensional relief. It begins with Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter, at her pluckiest) happily at work, restoring old paintings. (The opening credit sequence is rich with information, such as using egg yolks as a base.) Unfortunately, she gets laid off, tries to make out with her boss and comes down with a cold. Her teenage daughter (Claire Danes) announces that she's spending the holiday with her boyfriend and will be having sex for the first time.
With failure and humiliation hung around her neck, she returns home for turkey day. To rub it in, Claudia loses her fancy, big city coat at the airport and must settle for wearing her mother's puffy, hideously out-of-date coat for the rest of the visit. On the plane, she calls her closest companion, her brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.) and begs him to come too. It's an awkward, babbling message, but touchingly honest. Tommy, a cackling, gay nutcase full of mischievous energy, does turn up and brings the sexy Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott). Claudia is single, and in a lesser movie -- Dan in Real Life, for example -- everyone in the family would pester her to find a man, as if they had no concerns of their own. And certainly the subject comes up, most heartbreakingly in a scene with the sad-sack David Strathairn as an old classmate -- a meeting arranged by Claudia's mom (Anne Bancroft).
A lesser movie would also have the "uptight" character, and so does this with Claudia's sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her straight-laced husband (Steve Guttenberg). Certainly Joanne gets the expected "loosening up" treatment at dinner, including a plate of food in her lap, but Home for the Holidays brings back her dignity when Claudia visits her home later. We find Joanne in the laundry room, working out on a treadmill. "This is the only thing that I do all day that I like." It's just a bit of dialogue, but it breaks the heart and makes Joanne fully human. Likewise, Geraldine Chaplin stars as nutty Aunt Gladys, who gets a bit of lucidity amidst her nuttiness to describe her life's biggest regret.
Foster and Richter place many such little moments throughout the movie, sometimes right in the thick of chaos. Tommy's insubordinate behavior and comments -- brilliantly funny dialogue -- very often break the tension, but even Tommy is allowed a special section during which to become real. One of my favorite scenes comes early in the film, after Claudia's parents have picked her up at the airport and are driving her home through holiday traffic. She's bundled up in the back seat, trying to ignore the bickering, when her gaze meets that of another man, in the back seat of another car, perhaps trying to avoid the same kind of bickering from his own family. It's a small, wordless moment of universal connection.However, I think the soul of the film is Charles Durning as Henry, the father of the whole, crazy clan. Most of the time he appears blissfully unaware of the tension around him; he seems happy just to be surrounded by his loved ones. Later we see him in the basement watching old films, and we more deeply understand his tactics. His whole universe hinges on the idea of Thanksgiving and the memories of Thanksgivings past. Memory is a wonderful, terrible thing, however, and Henry seems to know it. Take this movie: a lot of aggravating things happen in it, but when you come away from it, we take only the warm, funny stuff. And when we watch it again perhaps next Thanksgiving, it will play out exactly the same way. If Jean Renoir had made a Thanksgiving movie, it would have looked and felt a bit like this one.