Flawed Funny Foster Family

The older I get, the more people I meet, the more I realize how fortunate I am with regard to family. I come from a fairly large, working-class brood, and while there is never a shortage of minor squabbles, as far as I know there are no significant grudges or enmities between my parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews or steps, or even between the nearer cousins and aunts and uncles.

I don't note this to boast--it's a blessing rather than an accomplishment--but to explain why I find the context of Jodie Foster's new comedy, Home for the Holidays, which is about the terrors of family get-togethers, somewhat alien. Enjoying my family's company is not difficult for me.

None of which is to say that there's nothing eccentric or exhausting about my family, or that nothing in Foster's film was recognizable. It's just that some of what the film presented as embarrassing struck me as ordinary family turbulence.

The trailers and TV ads make this film look like a knockout, which it isn't quite, sad to say. Still, the best of it is very funny. Foster made her directorial debut a few years back with an unimpressive drama called Little Man Tate, and Home, her second effort, isn't all that much better on a visual level. It's dreary and slack, apparently in the misguided notion that this presentation would be a comic reflection of the characters' attitudes. But the atmosphere isn't established strongly enough for that. It just seems like dreary, slack filmmaking.

In other respects, Home shows major improvement over Tate. The new film's strength is terrific acting by a first-rate cast, which digs into the juicy dialogue by W.D. Richter (from a short story by Chris Radant) with an abandon usually reserved for turkey and stuffing. The large group scenes are sustained riots, and much of the credit for the cast's jazzy ensemble work surely must go to Foster.

Holly Hunter plays the heroine, an art restorer who, in the opening scene, has a strange and mortifying sexual encounter--mercifully unconsummated--with her boss (Austin Pendleton), who has just fired her from her museum job. Shortly thereafter, Hunter's daughter (Claire Danes) calmly informs Hunter of plans to lose her virginity in mom's absence. The reason for said absence is Hunter's trip home to Baltimore to spend Thanksgiving with her nervous, contentious family.

So off Hunter flies, with a load of spiritual baggage far outweighing the physical. The rest of the movie concerns her struggle to stay sane in the company of her lovable but maddening parents, Charles Durning and Anne Bancroft.

Her salvation--and, to a considerable degree, the movie's--comes in the form of her brother, a puckishly manic gay wild man spectacularly played by Robert Downey Jr., who shows up with a handsome friend (Dylan McDermott) in tow. Hunter assumes that this fellow is a new boyfriend of Downey's, but, as the visit progresses, she learns that he was brought for a different reason.

Downey, a brilliantly talented young actor who has never quite had the role that would turn him loose, finds it here at last--he gives a charge to every scene he's in. Yet the deadpan Bancroft and that wonderful, light-on-his-feet blimp Durning are both delightful as well, and Geraldine Chaplin, as Bancroft's mad spinster sister, mixes hilarity and poignancy. There's also a charming bit by David Strathairn as a sad-sack heater repairman.

The glue that holds it all together is Hunter, who's been in good form lately. Here, as in her other current vehicle, the very different Copycat, she uses a sort of dreamy distance from the other actors to make herself seem like the sanest person on screen. In Copycat, a cloud of euphoric grins and faintly delayed responses protects her from the horrors of investigating a serial killer; in Home, it protects her from the loving oppressiveness of her relations.

The film tends to go a little sour when it tries for more intimate scenes, or when it tries for a touch of seriousness, as occurs during scenes focusing on Hunter's unhappy married sister (Cynthia Stevenson). Although Stevenson makes a good victim for Downey, and Steve Guttenberg is rather amusing in the small role of the somber brother-in-law, in general this side of the family is as much of a wet blanket to the movie as it is to the dinner.

At the end of the film, the question remains:Compared to what, exactly, is this family appalling? The answer, I think, is: compared to TV. The depiction of the nuclear family on the tube has had an enormous impact on the notion of what one's family ought to look like.

Just as many people born before WWII may have noted the lack of resemblance of their lives to Norman Rockwell's pictures, many postboomer dramatists have had their characters ruefully note the gap between their families and the Brady Bunch. Although no such reference is made aloud in Home, that pernicious sitcom ideal isn't far below the surface. Given the choice, though, I'd break bread with Hunter's pungently funny bunch over the Bradys any day.

Home for the Holidays: Directed by Jodie Foster; withHolly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, Robert DowneyJr., Geraldine Chaplin, Dylan McDermott, Cynthia Stevenson, Steve Guttenberg and Claire Danes.Rated

 
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