What Next [?]: Underdevelopment in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
18 November 2012
We all know where this is going. Big city artist, intellectual, and loner must travel home to spend a holiday with the outspoken and off-color family she avoids the rest of the year. The Thanksgiving table is decorated with food (fights), knickknacks, and arguments. As emotions boil over, tears and laughter flood the day, and, in the end, resolution is found because, despite their antics, her blood-bound brood love each other in their own unique but exhausting way. This is Home for the Holidays.
Directed by Jodie Foster in 1995, Home for the Holidays picks up with 40-year-old Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) the day before Thanksgiving, as she gets fired from her job as an art restoration specialist in a Chicago museum. Shaken, Claudia continues with her plan to fly to Baltimore so she can spend the Thanksgiving holiday with her parents. Just before boarding her flight, Claudia’s teenage daughter, Kit (Claire Danes), reveals that, while Claudia is away, she plans to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend. Taking her from shaken to shock, Claudia travels home only to be greeted by Adele (Anne Bancroft) and Henry (Charles Durning), her meddlesome mother and brazen father. On Thanksgiving, the familial motley crew grows to include Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), Claudia’s hyperactive and homosexual younger brother, his attractive friend Leo (Dylan McDermott), Claudia’s resentful sister Joanne, along with her haughty husband and two annoying children, as well as Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin), Adele’s loopy sister. The seemingly never-ending holiday climaxes when Leo, who Claudia believed to be gay, admits he is straight and that he came to the Larson Thanksgiving celebration to meet Claudia. From there, the two quickly hit it off, and, after Claudia releases some lingering inhibitions, Leo flies home to Chicago with her the day after Thanksgiving.
There is no question Home for the Holidays has its charm, but the film lacks originality. More than that— because what film is actually original, whatever that is—, Home for the Holidays pigeonholes itself with static characters and an underdeveloped narrative, which fail in the film’s attempt to achieve a nostalgically emotional resolution.
This comedy is, in large part, about a dysfunctionally functioning family; they are atypically typical, yet loving and lovable. Their quirks are what make them interesting and worth watching. However, the film is filled to the brim with characters, or caricatures, and the narrative spans a mere 48 hours of maddening holiday rituals. Most characters simply come and go. For example, aging Aunt Glady is an unforgettably idiosyncratic character. She’s madly in love with her sister’s husband—and never misses an opportunity to awkwardly admit (or sing) it—, she has the attention span of a goldfish, and thinks sensory lights are, to quote her, “magic.” She’s a bit role in the film; her character does not develop at all because her function is to offer laughs. She is a static character, like so many others in the film.
A character with more screen time is Tommy, played by Robert Downey Jr. Reportedly, Downey Jr. considered leaving acting prior to Home for the Holidays, but took the role when Foster promised he could improvise and adlib in his role, in an effort for Downey Jr. and Foster to communicate stronger realism and perhaps dynamism in his character. Arguably, this did not work. Even with more screen time than Glady, it seems, at any moment, the figurative wheels are about to fly off Tommy’s character. The performance is spontaneous. The brief moments when Tommy’s relentless exterior cracks are inconsistent and skirted, making his ostentatious character unchanging and difficult to connect with, thus as static as Glady.
Even Claudia, the protagonist of the piece, does not evolve in the film as a typical protagonist might. Her story begins when she loses her job, which upsets her only briefly. After its initial happening, her firing becomes passive commentary peppering the film. Even though the opening sequence, as Claudia restores a piece of art, suggests her job has recently become a great passion of hers, she is never terribly affected by its loss. Of course, the film cannot spend a great deal of time working through Claudia’s potential emotional struggle sparked by an major event at the start of the film because there is a subplot for Claudia in the whirlwind narrative, her love interest, Leo.
Part of the reason Claudia’s characterization is stifled is the loaded narrative introduces several twists and turns without fully developing any one of them. One such twist is the subplot between Leo and Claudia. The underdeveloped narrative sets up Leo and Claudia meet and grow feelings for one another in, approximately, 24 hours time. In the 24th hour, the two are flying home together, Claudia back to Chicago and Leo with her. Like Tommy, this narrative twist is spontaneous. Perhaps, romantic at first, Claudia and Leo’s relationship is preposterous because it is so underdeveloped. It is not relatable; it is ridiculous, and rather random.
And, just after Leo pops up on the plane Claudia boards to return home, the film begins a montage of love as its resolution, and this is where Home for the Holidays misses its mark. First, the montage travels into the past to see Adele and Henry young and madly in love, and their young children happy and loving. Then, jumps forward to Tommy and his husband Jack on the beach at their wedding. Next, the audience watches Joanne and her family lovingly playing with one another. And, of course, leaving off with the present, Claudia sleeping with her head on Leo’s should as they fly home to Chicago, all while a romantic ballad plays. This nostalgic resolution attempts to elicit an emotional response from the audience, but why would the audience become emotional? What groundwork as been laid and built upon with these characters and their lives to suggest they are relatable individuals who viewers chose to care about?
Home for the Holidays is a comedy which exists on caricatures, slapstick, and situational irony; it does not spend time on character or plot development; it’s surface. Hence, this is not the type of film calls for sentimental closure.