Monday, October 02, 2006

Picked Flick #38: Home for the Holidays

One of my favorite costume-props in modern American movies, right up there with Margo Tenenbaum's Izod dresses, is Claudia Larson's ribbed and massive magenta coat in Home for the Holidays. As Claudia (Holly Hunter) is quick to observe, especially when cornered by an enminked high-school classmate from a lifetime ago, this isn't her enormous coat: "I, of course, lost the stylish one that fits me in the airport." Upon arriving to her parents' crammed and gewgawed home for an inevitably awkward Thanksgiving, Claudia is coerced into this mulberry nightmare by her huskily antic mother Adele (Anne Bancroft), who foists it upon her before Claudia has even claimed her baggage. This means, yes, that Adele brought the coat along before she could possibly know that her daughter needed one: an early sign that the impossible yet possible family in Home for the Holidays is both perceptive and preposterous, knowingly and even uncannily predictive of each other's needs and hurts even though they are unable to salve them, for themselves or for each other, which state of affairs the film regards as merry, sad, and a little bit grotesque.

Home for the Holidays is a tottering but strangely durable object, just like the Larson family it chronicles. The Time Out Film Guide dismisses Home as "a modest film (in every sense)," but I take exception on two grounds: that the film's modesty is just as much a credit as a demerit, and that the structural detours, lopsided gags, and vastly disparate tones in this film are often quite immodest. Nothing in the movie asks you not to notice these asymmetries, and the resulting chaos of moods and performance styles illuminates something in the script, and in holiday rituals themselves, and maybe even in middle-class American families, that a firmer directorial hand and a more balanced film would never be able to access. So, skimming away the elements that plainly don't work—Steve Guttenberg, the farting grandmother (Geraldine Chaplin being less to blame than her silly part), the deliberate spilling of a stuffed turkey carcass over the head of a fuming sibling—a good deal of Home for the Holidays feels nervy, adventurous, and unapologetically disillusioned. The script, for one, is full of broken syntax, non sequiturs, lines that are interrupted or else just trail off, and distended sentences that cry out for loopy, riffy enactment. Here is Bancroft's Adele admonishing her grown daughter for abandoning her love of painting: "All I know is, whenever anybody comes in here, they make a beeline for your brother Tommy's picture. 'Who did that?' they say. 'My oldest, my smartest daughter,' I answer, but she's busy squandering her God-given talent filling in the holes in some dead people's pictures in Chicago, the Windy City." What makes the whole line, the whole speech, is "the Windy City." Aside from the gratuitousness with which a mother reminds a daughter of her own brother's name; from the rude way she actually reminds herself, mid-sentence, to name favorites among her brood; from the implication throughout the movie that few (if any) outsiders ever do pass through this room; from the indictment of the portrait itself, which bespeaks no talent whatever; from the bruising obliviousness with which Adele gets the nature of Claudia's job totally wrong; there's the standing fact that Adele doesn't end her thought anywhere near where she began it. In fact, she dead-ends herself in a little cul-de-sac of empty, accumulated knowledge. The film teems with off-rhythms like this: lighting and makeup are insistently unflattering, despite several scenes of dressing, bathing, and primping; Claudia always loses the words of the songs she sings; the whole cast, stunningly well-matched for physical resemblance, are vocally all over the place; speeches and toasts digress into outright opacity; everyone in the film drives poorly, and too quickly. Like one of Adele's rattling speeches, the film doesn't end anywhere near where it began, charting an arc from comically embittered candor to wild romantic mythmaking. But then, there are deep structural rhymes, too, as in the twinned prologue and epilogue. At the outset, the hermetically closed serenity of a Renaissance painting that Claudia restores in extreme close-up, breaking the whole of the artwork into isolated vignettes. At the end, more vignettes: a montage of faux home-movies depicting islands of ecstatic happiness in the life of every character, though we have already learned by now that the surrounding context for these moments is something less than happiness. Surely, we must apply this pattern to the optimistic mirage of new love that almost concluded the movie. Of course, we hope we're wrong, and I don't think the film faults us too heavily for hoping.

Home for the Holidays has a spirit and an ostensible shapelessness that are pure Cassavetes, enveloping a script that only seems to reach for the precise calculations of 1930s screwball comedy. Gene-splice Cukor's Holiday with Cassavetes' Love Streams, deny the mise-en-scène either beauty or the defensive affectation of obvious unbeauty, and assign as director one of our most controlled, businesslike, coolly mannered actresses, who had helmed only one movie before this one and none since, but who is clearly jazzed by the vandalish act of producing an id-driven, deeply felt, but sloppy-at-the-edges movie that rewards all the impulses and admits all the angers that she tends to suppress as an actress, and you get a movie as weird as this one. An off-kilter prose poem of run-on sentences. And sentence fragments. A raucous comedy tuned to the chords of middle-age, and thus closed off, almost by definition, to the typical (young, male) audience for raucous comedy. A cast of top-flight actors, united only in having been so underutilized in bright but vaguely disappointing careers, and pushed in this instance well away from their comfort zones. Note, though, that Foster's embrace of cacophony at the level of acting, to include her heroic patience with Robert Downey Jr.'s exhilarating overplaying, has been firmly prevented from afflicting either the soundtrack (prim, predictable, Polygram-stamped) or the stabilized color palette (chestnut browns, burgundy, gold, black, and winter white, plus those offending yet scrupulously managed splashes of hot pink).

I know what you're thinking: much of the above reads like reasons to dislike the movie. My partner, aghast at this film's inclusion on this list (and at such a high rung!) gently exhorted me to reiterate that this is a list of favorites, not a list of "bests." Home for the Holidays is indeed a favorite, but also, for me, something of a best: a dramedy about the funny-harsh messiness of families that truly doesn't blanch at being funny-harsh and messy. A middle-brow entertainment, a holiday picture of all things, that preserves the spiky energies of a rehearsal and the dubious, even iconoclastic instincts of a passive-aggressive analysand. And a movie that halts, three or four times, for moments of truth between characters—the final antipathy between two sisters, the gorgeous love between a sister and a brother—that differ entirely from almost anything the movies ever show us, and that carry the rest of this shaggy-dog film to glory. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1995 Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Paramount Pictures.

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Regular readers would probably be surprised to know how often we disagree on movies...

but it's in off the road places like this where we seem so often in synch. I love this movie too. I love the ugly coat I even used it as the focus of my illustration for the review when I worked a college paper. i love the casting for the most part and its strange chaos.

and I have never quite understood why it didn't find more of a niche audience (though it's lack of overall success is not surprising given its outcast nature)

8:25 PM, October 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel no guilt in saying that Home for the Holidays is one of the best movies of the nineties...middlebrow or whatever tag applies. There's no doubt that repeated (annual, natch) viewings have perhaps granted it the cozy feel of an old friend, and for me it by now has the advantage over other films for my knowing its every nook and cranny...all that withstanding, this thing holds up. WIth movies like The Family Stone coming out these days (which gets points for being an "alternative" family but loses them all again for being shrilly self-righteous and unbearably cliched), and every major studio release falling with the force of a jackhammer, Home for the Holidays looks more and more like one of the last great statements of the Clintonian Nineties.

So nice, Nick, to see you posting about this very special film, which I will no longer comment on, as I have been planning on a longer essay on it for quite some time...just have to find the right context.

8:59 PM, October 02, 2006  
Blogger par3182 said...

two things i loved in this film - cynthia stevenson's speech about passing holly hunter on the street if they weren't related and the redemptive moment foster gives steve guttenburg and cynthia in the montage at the end - letting them be happy in the family of their choosing like the others are.

the rest of the film is a little too chaotic for my liking but those two moments make me remember it fondly.

2:46 AM, October 05, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i was talking to one of my closest friends about this this past week (remembering it due to this post) and she expressed total admiration for the scene w/ Cynthia Stevenson on the treadmill and the sadness and narrowness of her sense of self 'the only thing i enjoy.' and how her rigidity just keeps cycling into more rigidity

it's just one of those movies where people see and respond to different things in it which is usually a good sign I think of a flexible worthwhile film.

9:56 AM, October 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I LOVE this film! It is truly one of the best "small films" of all time. I am a theater director, and it reminds me of a great ensemble theater piece--great dialogue, characters, and music! This is a must-see film, but it may take more than one viewing to really appreciate its depth.

2:43 AM, November 22, 2007  

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