Thanksgiving gets somewhat shortchanged in the movies, Eli Roth fake trailers aside. Perhaps screenwriters and filmmakers think that Thanksgiving doesn't present opportunities for cinematic conflict and action. If that's the case, they have a profound lack of imagination ... and they haven't been to a big family Thanksgiving dinner. My favorite Turkey Day scene in any movie is set at a family dinner table, but the action is riveting, just like a train wreck. Director Jodie Foster and writer W.D. Richter get it exactly right in the 1995 film 'Home for the Holidays.'
'Home for the Holidays' is a lovely movie to watch on Thanksgiving with your family, if for no other reason than to feel thankful your own dinner isn't like the one in the movie. Holly Hunter's single mom Claudia, laid off from her dream job and feeling low-spirited, is spending her holiday with her parents. It's easy to sympathize as she battles a cold, is enveloped immediately by her mother in a pink monstrosity of a coat, and can't even get a decent night's sleep without being attacked by relatives. Fortunately, her family is portrayed by a fantastic array of actors who bring empathy to characters we might not want to spend our own holiday with: Anne Bancroft as her chain-smoking mother; Charles Durning as the sentimental dad, complete with video camera; Cynthia Stevenson as the super-perfectionist, super-unhappy sister.
Into all of this steps Claudia's little brother Tommy -- Robert Downey, Jr. with an unfortunate haircut -- dragging his attractive friend Leo (Dylan McDermott) in tow. And that brings us to the Thanksgiving dinner scene, which I adore. Of course I do not adore it because there have been years where I wish the calamity with the turkey would happen to someone at a family dinner I was attending. I love my family too much to want that to happen. And I have to admit, as uptight as some of us have been known to act at times, I think that if such an accident happened to someone in my family, we would handle it with greater good humor than the character in the movie.
The Thanksgiving dinner scene begins with a prayer from Durning's character -- a very spontaneous prayer. Warning: the video below contains PG-13-rated language.
But the high point of the scene is the mishap, which is simultaneously funny and cruel. The question isn't how I would handle it if such a thing happened to me, but how I'd handle it if it happened to my sister. Would I laugh? Should we be laughing? Where should we be drawing the line between family humor and family cruelty? It's a question that may be an integral part of many families' holiday celebrations this year, and 'Home for the Holidays' depicts it with unblinking accuracy.
And that's why the following scene is one of the best family holiday moments in film that I've watched. The action is slightly over-the-top and the characters are larger than life, but the emotion behind it feels real, and you're faced with the same emotional choice as the characters. Do you laugh? Probably. Should you feel sorry for the character? Do you want to give Tommy a smack, just for good measure? Perhaps. If it happened to your family, would you be telling the story (and playing the video) at Thanksgiving dinner for the next 20 years, or would that be too mean to the person directly involved? Those are the kinds of things that family holiday dinners are made of.
Warning: The following video contains R-rated language.