B y T o m D a n e h y
SOMEONE ONCE SAID that, when taken to extremes, a phallic symbol could be defined as anything longer than it is wide. Such dishonest looseness of thought has pervaded modern American society, most notably wrapping itself around the word "dysfunctional." As in family, as in the basis for director Jodie Foster's Home For The Holidays, a family-from-heck film that's sometimes cloying, often meandering, but still mostly satisfying, thanks to some wonderful performances.
Since Home for the Holidays mines some very well-known territory--the dreaded pilgrimage back to the nest for dry turkey served alongside some warmed-over bitterness--it must walk a tightrope between sentimentality and zaniness, stereotype and familiarity.
The film starts off with a downer, then heaps on the misery in swirling layers until we can't help but be drawn onto the side of its protagonist. Claudia (played by Holly Hunter with that same girlish, vulnerable charm that should have won her an Oscar for Broadcast News) is a single mom and a professional art restorer who has just lost her job and has been told by her 15-year-old daughter (the dull-as-dirt Claire Danes) that the kid plans on losing her virginity over the holiday weekend.
With just a little bit on her mind, she must travel from Chicago to Baltimore for the annual bloodletting, which she dreads more than a root canal or an all-Michael Bolton weekend on the radio. There's a wonderful scene where she is being driven home by her folks (Charles Durning and Anne Bancroft). Claudia looks over into the next car and locks eyes with another, unnamed adult child likewise being escorted back to another Longest Dinner, and the two exchange the most incredible "Get-me-outta-here" look.
Claudia's parents are overbearing but lovable, two old shoes who are comfortable with each other. Yet there is about them a sense of missed opportunities and shrugging acceptance, like they're right near the intersection of "What if?" and "It's too late to do anything about it now."
Durning is slowly drifting into the past, either holding onto a last vestige of youthful exuberance or losing hold of his adult sensibilities. We're not quite sure which, and it's causing his wife no small concern. He's long had the proclivity to start at over-the-top and proceed from there. Here he's broad and funny, but convincingly so.
The real treasure is Bancroft. The multiple-Oscar nominee (and winner for The Miracle Worker) has recently become a tad annoying, with each performance more shrill and grating than her last. She was well on her way to becoming the next Ruth Gordon. Here she's rough and gruff, but somehow her chain-smoking rasp seems dead solid perfect for the character. She holds the film together just as her character holds the family together.
Throw into the mix Claudia's only brother Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.), who's gay and an incessant practical joker; her sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), who goes through life with a permanent stick up her butt; Joanne's husband (Steve Guttenberg); Claudia's eccentric-times-two Aunt Glady and Tommy's friend Leo (Dermot Mulroney), who surprises everyone by taking an immediate liking to Claudia.
They all dance around each other--sometimes literally--recalling old times, regurgitating old hurts and uneasily forging new alliances. There's a lot about this film that is tender and likable.
Some of the credit must go to Foster, who's still finding her way as a director but appears to be making huge strides. Her first effort, Little Man Tate, was so aggressively sweet, diabetic filmgoers were sent running into the street.
She handles things more deftly here, but not without some problems. She has a tendency to linger too long in some scenes of mundane dialogue, trying to capture that feeling of togetherness which comes from being in a room with loved ones who are talking about...well, no one's really listening, anyway, are they?
Still other scenes have a broad, sitcom feel to them, but that has to be at least partly the fault of screenwriter W.D. Richter. That's something of a nit-pick, since most of those scenes did result in a good laugh or two.
Home also gives us another good performance by Robert Downey, Jr. I think it's probably about time we stop being surprised by his work and quit expecting him to join Judd Nelson in that netherworld where most of the former Brat Packers now reside. Downey is very good here as he takes great pleasure in driving his sister Joanne nuts.
It all culminates in a wild Thanksgiving dinner scene, with food and pent-up venom flying every which-a-way. Sure it ends somewhat predictably, but it's a fun ride, with enough laughs and warmth for everyone to have seconds.
Home for the Holidays is playing at the Century Gateway (792-9000) and Foothills Cinemas (742-6174).
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