Pack your emotional baggage

By Julian Wise - November 22, 2006

There's a scene early on in "Home for the Holidays" that explains why the 1995 film is considered a holiday cult classic. Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) has just been fired from her job at a Chicago art museum and steels herself for a grueling family reunion at Thanksgiving. As she arrives at the airport in her hometown and gets in the back of her parent's car, she glances at the other adult passengers sitting in the back of their parent's cars enduring the inevitable holiday hectoring. The passengers share a collective silent groan that sets the tone for this bittersweet film.

Jodie Foster directed the film from a W.D. Richter screenplay, based on a short story by author Chris Randant. The film's incisive portrayal of flawed yet endearing family members gives the story its heart and soul. Neither a pure comedy nor pure drama, the film inhabits a whimsical middle ground, as do most real-life family reunions.

Claudia's familial cross to bear includes her kitsch-laden parents Adele and Henry (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning), her scattershot homosexual brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), her straight-arrow sister (Cynthia Stevenson) and brother-in-law (Steve Gutenberg) who openly dislike Tommy, and her batty Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin). As these characters converge around the Larson hearth, the dysfunctional dynamics play out with clock-like precision. The Larson family reacts to the histrionics and outbursts with weary familiarity, as though none of the off-the-wall behavior (including a tussle between grown men on the front lawn that Henry breaks up by dousing the combatants with a garden hose) is happening for the first time.

"Home for the Holidays" works because it acknowledges the emotional burden holidays impose without ignoring the threads of love that keep families from dissolving under this pressure. Sharp writing, sure footed direction by Jodie Foster, and sly acting performances make the film an occasion to wince and laugh at. Much like the real thing.