For the first thirty or so minutes, Home for the Holidays is exactly the film its trailer presented. It’s a genial family comedy with a recognizable cast, a mix of standard casting choices like Charles Durning (Dad), semi-standards like Anne Bancroft (Mom), and unknown ones like Geraldine Chaplin (crazy aunt). Even when Robert Downey Jr. (gay brother) shows up, it’s still a recognizable comedy. We’re following Holly Hunter around on her unpleasant due to familial eccentricities Thanksgiving. Then David Strathairn shows up for a one-scene cameo and Home for the Holidays becomes something else entirely. The scene’s affecting in a significant way and, here’s another aspect of the film, Jodie Foster knows it. I’m not sure there’s ever been such a polished sophomore directorial effort than this one. Foster shoots that scene with Strathairn different and she has to shoot it different, because it is different. Then I realized, Foster changes her approach all throughout Holidays, totally in tune with the content. Flipping past the film over the length, so long as one kept forgetting Holly Hunter, a person could think it was a different film. It’s a very particular film.
I’d seen it once before, about eight years ago, at the height of my institutionalized film snobbery (working with a bunch of film school students and graduates at a snobby video store), recommended by someone who didn’t buy into the snobbery–actually, I don’t think she recommended it, just mentioned it–and I thought it was a great film. I probably even thought it was great for the same reasons I do now, which–given the time lapse–is a little surprising (but also agreeable, since I was a little afraid during the opening twenty it’d be decent but unspectacular). But I’d forgotten it, so I was with Foster through the film–when she introduced section cards, I was a little weary, but by the third, she turns them into prompts for the viewer to think about the film he or she is watching.
And then, when the film gets to the actual Thanksgiving dinner–Geraldine Chaplin has her big scene and it changes Home for the Holidays again… Foster uses the same style–presenting the viewer (and the characters) with something they expect to be amusing, but then changing the viewer’s perspective of the film and the characters’ perspective of themselves. Then, pretty soon after dinner’s over, Dylan McDermott takes over. I’ve seen McDermott in very little and Holidays is early in his high profile career buildup, but Foster gets an amazing performance out of him. Unbelievable, really–his character is impossible, but Foster and McDermott pull it off. I’m not sure how much W.D. Richter’s script contributed, because there’s one scene where it really looks like they (Hunter, McDermott and Foster) played a scene different from the way it’d be written. But, whatever… Foster has a lot of odd homages in here, to films a family comedy probably shouldn’t reference (I can’t remember because I didn’t make any notes, but along the lines of Welles and Ford–with some Woody Allen). The McDermott stuff plays like a Howard Hawks comedy, only there’s no space for the viewer to acclimate, so he or she just gets caught up in it. And once it’s going, it’s fantastic stuff.
Watching the clock as it got near the end, I kept wondering how Foster was going to wrap it all up. Her choice is amazing; predictable, but amazing. She conducts her characters out of a genial comedy and into something else. It’s something a little new even. While some of it is familiar territory, her nurturing of the characters really pays off at the end.
It’s a wonderful film.
Directed by Jodie Foster; written by W.D. Richter, based on a short story by Chris Radant; director of photography, Lajos Koltai; edited by Lynzee Klingman; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Peggy Rajski and Foster; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Holly Hunter (Claudia Larson), Robert Downey Jr. (Tommy Larson), Anne Bancroft (Adele Larson), Charles Durning (Henry Larson), Dylan McDermott (Leo Fish), Geraldine Chaplin (Aunt Glady), Steve Guttenberg (Walter Wedman), Cynthia Stevenson (Joanne Wedman), Claire Danes (Kitt) and David Strathairn (Russell Terziak).