Happy Thanksgiving! Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays is a depiction of the holiday that is all too realistic for many Americans, yet it is too lovingly and joyfully produced to not smile and laugh along with all the dysfunction we identify with so well. The Larson family gathers for Thanksgiving. The father (Charles Durning) offers a profanity-laced meal prayer expressing his disgust for traditions like Thanksgiving. The mother (Anne Bancroft) is so obsessed with making everybody else feel comfortable that the results of her efforts produce the completely opposite result. Their three children are equally unhappy to be there “celebrating” the holiday. Claudia (Holly Hunter) is trying not to let her family know the recent unpleasant details of her life to her parents, but of course they get out. Tommy (Robert Downy Jr.) also tries to keep the details of his personal life quiet, but he and Claudia are the only two members of the family that are close enough to share anything with each other. Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) is a busybody who refuses to respect the privacy of either Claudia or Tommy. Her own insecurities and self-consciousness give her the desires to point out everybody else’s problems in the hopes that she won’t have to deal with her own.
All of this sounds on paper like a depressing study of family dysfunction. But Home for the Holidays couldn’t be any further from that. It’s one of the funniest movies ever made, but it’s humor is so founded in reality that I can’t write in a way that does any justice to that comedy. Robert Downy Jr. has a brilliant line that sums up everything that the movie accomplishes. Following the meal prayer and all the strange revelations about the family it brings up, he says “That was absurd. Let’s eat dead bird.” Jodie Foster’s direction deals so wonderfully with the absurdity of dysfunction that in the end, it is not really movie about dysfunction at all. It is a celebration of family despite all of the confusion and hurt so often associated with family.
Because Thanksgiving has become a holiday mostly about food in America, thankfully being divorced from its unjust, violent, and racist origins, Jodie Foster is able to tap into that wonderful reality that meals can bind people together. Each member of the Larson family comes from different lots in life. They’re not in agreement about much of anything. They’re not willing too listen to each other over many topics. They have familial ties, but they’re separate. Yet most of them embrace the absurd as they eat their Thanksgiving meal together. The movie never loses the cynicism about the American family it begins with, but it portrays its cynicism in a way that also celebrates it. Celebrating Thanksgiving means celebrating family, even when that means embracing what is uncomfortable, what is painful, what is absurd.
That was absurd. Let’s eat dead bird. Happy Thanksgiving!