The number of holiday films has grown exponentially as the Hallmark Channel requires constant feeding, or another deluded studio executive forgets herself and green lights an instant classic in which Tyler Perry, Kirstin Wiig, Eddie Murphy, or Progressive Insurance’s huckster, Flo, play all the parts. It doesn’t matter; we’d have to start on the day after Halloween just to put a dent in our list of must-see Christmas favorites.
But, see, Thanksgiving is not just a fly-by, not just a ritual gorge-a-thon, not just parades, or football, or even the arrival of Santa on 34th Street. No, my dumplings, Thanksgiving brings the bounty of the harvest, the first hints of winters deep chill, sodden leaves stuck to the soles of shoes, darkness in the afternoon, and above all, the gathering of kith and kin. As the only holiday contriving and coercing the confluence of family and food, Thanksgiving arrives with burdens other holidays do not bear and without the distractions (gifts, easter baskets, fireworks) within which other holidays can take refuge. Oh, there is excess on the horizon; thrifty shoppers leap from the table to take their place in the writhing horde, hoping to reach a discounted PlayStation before being kicked to the floor and trampled on America’s newest holiday, Black Friday, but the actual giving-of-thanks event is up for grabs on a yearly basis.
The table has to groan, and that means that someone has to cook, which means living up to whatever standard previous Thanksgivings have established, unless it means that several people have to cook, which means each cook is in immediate competition with every other chef and with whatever standard previous Thanksgivings have established. Young people are tired and bored; older people are tired and bored. Now, force-fed and lethargic, hosts and guests need the magic of cinema to restore their faith in the celebration of hearth and home. There may not be a plethora of Thanksgiving films, but the best of them deserve a place at the table, as it were.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
If you only screen one film this month, make it Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, even if you have seen it before, even if you saw it last week. There aren’t many films that bring the exactly right director with exactly the right leading players to exactly the right film. John Hughes managed it more than once, with the ensemble in The Breakfast Club and with Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Working against the grain of the mismatched buddy, odd couple, genre, Hughes found in Steve Martin and John Candy a couple not only oddly mismatched but authentically in need of each other.
Fair Warning. This is a comedy with an edge. No sex or violence to make family viewing terminally awkward, but Martin’s character, a rigid and controlling executive contending with the madness that is seasonal travel, unleashes streams of obscenities with unrestrained fury, particularly in a scene in which his rental car has not proved to be satisfactory. Even in his early days of madcap comedy, Steve Martin skidded from frantic to frenzied, hinting at a strain of dislocation or discontent just beneath the surface. His nemesis/better half is played by John Candy, an actor whose clumsy sweetness was the more poignant for his discomfort with his own bulk; even his deliciously campy villains, Dr. Tongue, for example in Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Beef, seem to apologize for taking the space that they occupy.
Fair Warning. This is a comedy that can break your heart. Martin treats Candy shabbily; Candy sees himself as Martin sees him. The ending is not so much happy as restorative. Candy’s character needs a home; Martin’s character needs a heart. Fortunately, John Hughes had the brain, and this film manages to treat them and the holiday with generous good will.
Incidentally, as one fascinated by the impact given a film by character actors, I particularly admire Edie McLurg who steals the scene as the rental car agent at whom Steve Martin unlooses a torrent of vile epithets as she did as the principal’s secretary in Ferris Bueller Day’s Off and as the campus tour guide in Van Wilder.
The next three films are set around family and Thanksgiving, and both are well worth watching, but each deals with the difficulties that can find their way into the best of families. That holiday icon, Leo Tolstoy, put it best: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Home for the Holidays
I don’t know another film that is as true to the disconcerting mix of resignation, loyalty, discord, loss, decency, injury, humor, or distance that marks the families I have known. Not a comedy, not a drama, Home For the Holidays assembles a cast that might esasily have spun out of whack but which, caught by a strong narrative and the deft direction of Jodie Foster, inhabits characters who ring true to life.
Made in 1995, the film appeared as Robert Downey, Jr.’s personal life was falling very publicly apart, background which gave his role in this film more weight than it might have had, and than it occupies on a later viewing. Holly Hunter is a woman of a certain age, leaving a failed career (she’s just been fired) and a daughter (Claire Danes) who promises to have her first sexual encounter while her mother is heading home to Baltimore for the holiday. Hunter’s parents, Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning, live in a home so crammed with marginally garish knock knacks that we experience the claustrophobia their children must have known.
Downey plays Hunter’s gay brother whose homosexuality is pointedly not mentioned though acknowledged. In this performance, as in his best work, Downey brings comic energy to a manic character in pain. Looking back at him from a distance, I am aware of Downey’s capacity for kindness, a gift that brings Hunter, and the audience, safely home from a visit that might have roughed us up a bit.
Dylan McDermot is perfectly cast as the odd man out, long before he took up creepiness in American Horror Story, and the impossibly brittle Geraldine Chaplin adds spice to holiday conversation by telling the family secrets we long to know.
Hannah and Her Sisters
Many critics consider Hannah and Her Sisters the best of Woody Allen’s films; it won three major Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Caine), Best Supporting Actress (Diane Wiest) , and Best Original Screenplay. Categorized as a comedy/drama, it may be his most personal, despite his identification in lighter films with the many neurotic nebishes he has played to comedic effect.
His character in this film is paralyzed in existential distress, as Allen’s characters often are, incapable of maintaining a sustaining relationship while hovering at the edge of a family once his. His divorced wife, Hannah, played by his divorced wife, Mia Farrow, who, in this film is married to Michael Caine, who, in this film is knocked sideways by his passion for Hannah’s sister, Barbara Hersey, who, in this film is married to Max Van Sydow, who, in this film has reduced Hersey to something like catatonic infantilism. Lloyd Nolan and Maureen Sullivan play the parents of the sisters.The film begins and ends with Thanksgiving dinners but is structured in five story arcs, one of which allows the third sister, Diane Wiest, and Allen to bring the film to an oddly resolved end.
Pieces of April
Rounding out the holiday dysfunctional family films of distinction, Pieces of April reminds us that Katie Holmes once had a very promising career as she shines in this quirky, bittersweet comedy/drama as the estranged daughter of a (surprise) dysfunctional family.
April lives in a dingy, almost palpably filthy apartment in New York with a boyfriend who will disappear in the course of the film. Recognizing that her mother’s illness will likely take her within the year, April invites her family to New York for Thanksgiving. She has never prepared a meal, the oven in the apartment gives out well before the family arrives, she has to connect quickly with people in her apartment.
Meanwhile the other elements of dysfunction are on the road, each working out their own issues, with April, and with their journey. Patricia Clarkson as April’s dying mother, Joy, was nominated for an Academy Award as a Supporting Actress. Oliver Platt was well received as April’s father, clinging to the strands of a relationship with his daughter, hoping that Thanksgiving allows mother and daughter to reconnect. John Gallagher, Jr., who won a Tony on Broadway in Spring Awakening, plays April’s stoned brother while Alison Pill, familiar to watchers of The Newsroom, plays a sister resentful of the role April once played as favorite child and fearful that conflict between her mother and April could accelerate the course of her mother’s illness.
It sounds grim, perhaps, but Pieces of April is good hearted, often funny, and well paced. The film was introduced at the Sundance Festival, and was warmly received. Shot on video for two hundred thousand dollars in three weeks, the film looks great and is a model of efficient filmmaking. The script is by Peter Hedges who also wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dan in Real Life, and About a Boy.
There are other films in which Thanksgiving is the focal holiday, from Disney’s Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale to Thankskilling, in which vulnerable teens are stalked by a killer turkey. The holiday may be at its darkest in The Ice Storm, which has a great cast (Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Toby Maguire, a young Christina Ricci , Elijh Wood, and Sigourney Weaver) and is directed by Ang Lee. This is a powerful, disturbing and worthwhile film; maybe watch it in July?
I can’t recommend What’s Cooking with all five stars as it drops into melodrama once or twice too often, but it’s pretty interesting as it presents Thanksgiving as experienced by Vietnamese, Latino, Jewish, and African American families, and, when the actors aren’t screaming at each other, it, too, is funny and good hearted.
If none of these fits the bill, there’s nothing like a turkey induced coma, stretched on the couch, watching/ not watching three hours of football.