Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays is a new-style heart-warmer, a bittersweet valentine to everything in modern family life that doesn’t work. Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter), a single mom, returns to Baltimore to spend Thanksgiving weekend at the home of her parents. There, amid a handful of crackpot relatives, she is treated to an oversize portion of what the film regards as America’s real family values: dread, bickering resentment, faded dreams. The cycles of anger and regret are, in almost every instance, driven by a deep unspoken need for tenderness. For all its nerve-scrambling chaos, the movie features more old-fashioned toasty hugs than any fractured family saga since Terms of Endearment.
At the beginning, Claudia, a professional art restorer, gets laid off from her job and learns that her 15-year-old daughter (Claire Danes) is planning to spend the holiday losing her virginity. How, exactly, does Claudia react to these shake-ups? By sneezing. This cutesy-poo symptom of anxiety is a signal that Hunter, after winning the Oscar for her beautifully severe performance in The Piano, is back to her old tricks. Flirty and chipper, with an undercurrent of sweet melancholy, she is once again playing the wry trouper who has never quite grown up.
Home for the Holidays exploits Hunter’s girlishness by introducing Claudia into a home that’s essentially a collection of aging adult children. Her father, Henry (Charles Durning), is a grinning doofus lost in a daze of nostalgia, the kind of guy who’s liable at any moment to break into enthusiastic fits of dancing (or, for more obscure reasons, vacuuming). Her mother, the tough, chain-smoking Adele (Anne Bancroft), hides her gray hair under a wig but can’t camouflage the bitterness she feels at seeing her husband slide into senile ineffectuality. Bancroft, haggard now but fiercer than ever, gives the film’s most lived-in performance, anchoring its frenetic atmosphere with every impassioned croak. Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), the Larsons’ only son, is the black sheep of the family. He’s gay, and also an infantile put-on artist who has his ironic-charm mode stuck in overdrive. He takes special delight in getting on the nerves of his sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), a housewife who stayed in Baltimore to marry a hard-ass yuppie banker (Steve Guttenberg).
Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike, and Home for the Holidays strives to make this unhappy one as freaky as possible: a menagerie of jabbering wrecks, isolated in the very abundance of their missed connections. Yet the film insists on dramatizing this emotional crazy quilt in a way that’s nearly as unstable as the Larsons themselves. Foster, working from a patchy, meandering script by W.D. Richter, produces scene after scene of rudderless banter. The movie is all asides, all nattering; the actors seem lost in their busy, fractious shticks. At Thanksgiving dinner, loony old Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin) breaks into a daft chorus of ”A Bicycle Built for Two.” Tommy, after ”accidentally” dumping the turkey into Joanne’s lap, proceeds to pour the stuffing on her head. Does this sound like your family? Like anybody’s?
Foster, directing her second film (after 1991’s Little Man Tate), is out to evoke the spontaneous combustion of neurotic clannish bickering. But why has she staged so many scenes so broadly? The most arresting person on screen is also the most irritating: Tommy, played by Robert Downey Jr. with a kind of showboating obnoxiousness that renders the character’s gayness a secondary issue — for Hollywood, a real breakthrough — and, at the same time, marks him as a selfish cad. Yet since Claudia, in all her caution, adores his fearless, baiting antics (even when he turns them on her), it’s obvious we’re supposed to love the guy. Foster seems trapped in the stale game of patronizing Middle Americans for their blinkered insensitivity and exalting the ”otherness” of those on the fringes. Claudia enjoys a redemptive romance with Tommy’s pal (Dylan McDermott), a suitor so earnest and true he’s a dull saint. By having her rescued from the family angst by this domestic Prince Charming, the movie neatly sidesteps everything it’s about. Home for the Holidays tries to be as fluid and spontaneous as a Robert Altman film and, at the same time, as glib as a cheap-shot sitcom. It wants to be painful and true and also tug at the audience’s heartstrings. In the end, it’s the movie that’s dysfunctional. C-