Jodie Foster’s second directorial effort, “Home for the Holidays,” is an affectionately drawn, multigenerational portrait of an eccentric family, less ponderous and, on the surface at least, more likable and entertaining than her 1991 debut, “Little Man Tate.” Still, a saucy, shrewdly selected cast headed by Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr. and Anne Bancroft elevates this warm-hearted comedy only a notch or two above the level of well-crafted TV sitcom. Reviews probably will be divided, but with the right handling and positive word-of-mouth, pic could turn into a solid late fall release.
Foster’s new film follows naturally from her first outing, which also examined an unusual family: a single working-class mom and her genius son desperately trying to connect. This time around the lead characters aren’t young , though they’re just as problematic and often behave like children. Cashing in on the ritualistic meaning of Thanksgiving, tale centers on an extended clan whose members feel an urge — by ways of kinship and obligation — to congregate year after year for the holiday.
Story begins with what is possibly the worst day in Claudia’s (Hunter) life. Just as she’s about to fly to see her folks in Baltimore, she’s fired from her job at the Chicago art museum — and learns that Kitt (Claire Danes), her 15 -year-old daughter, plans to lose her virginity during her absence. To make things worse, Claudia has a perpetual fear of flying and is fighting a bad cold. In desperation, she leaves a message on the answering machine of brother Tommy (Downey), who lives in Boston, begging him to change his plans and nurse her through the much-dreaded event.
Once at home, Claudia is treated by her loony parents like a little girl. The ceaseless banter of her list-making, coupon-clipping mom (Bancroft) would drive anyone up the wall. Dad (Charles Durning) too, has his peculiarities, grabbing his wife for a romantic dance while she cooks, washing the neighbors’ cars in the dead of winter, sneaking out in the middle of the night to taste the pumpkin pie.
Small, mostly well-observed scenes establish the many characters, who for 36 intense hours fight and reconcile, showing their simultaneously endearing and exasperating personalities. They include gay brother Tommy, who lives an alternative lifestyle unbeknownst to his folks; humorless married sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), who resents that she gets no respect for staying in Baltimore and taking care of the aging parents; and senile aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin), who has a penchant for dropping outrageous stories at the most unlikely moments.
Some romantic tension prevails between Claudia and Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott) , a handsome, mysterious stranger brought to the house by Tommy.
Scripter W.D. Richter vividly captures the paradoxes of family life, its push-and-pull forces, the eternally conflicted feelings of dread and excitement that going home for the holidays invokes. But Foster is unable to give the episodic, fragmented film a coherent feel; her prosaic, sometimes irritating picture proceeds scene by scene, with the requisite climaxes and anticlimaxes along the bumpy road.
Hunter’s performance as a lonely woman beset by the headaches of a single mom is sincerely felt and commanding, without being truly captivating. There are no new notes in her work here, which follows more in the vein of “Broadcast News” than “The Piano.”
Adding another colorful role to his already striking gallery, Downey shines — his multinuanced portrayal of a gay man is notably unstereotypical.
The older members of the ensemble fare less well. As the chain-smoking, pantry-packing mother, Bancroft is over the top from the first scene, though some of the excesses are in the script; also, Foster displays her in an unnecessarily graceless manner. Durning and Chaplin have some good moments, but they’re not helped much by the contrived narrative.
Lajos Koltai’s crisp lensing and Andrew McAlpine’s production design underline the uniform style of suburban middle-class life.
Early on there’s a nice scene at the airport, where every single phone booth is occupied by a Claudia-type, each living out the dread of going home.
Pandering to the audience, “Home for the Holidays” is not so much an uncanny as a canned picture, reaffirming viewers’ dreaded anxiety of spending yet another predictably chaotic Thanksgiving in the clutches of their families — while also suggesting why next year they’ll do the same thing again.