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MOVIE REVIEW : No Place Like 'Home' : Director Jodie Foster Looks for Humor in Chaotic Holiday Reunion


Comedy loves misery, and few things manufacture discontent as efficiently as ritualized family gatherings. "Home for the Holidays" hopes to find the laughs in the mad chaos of one miserable Thanksgiving, but like many holiday wishes it doesn't quite get fulfilled.

Directed by Jodie Foster and written by W.D. Richter, "Holidays" isn't able to differentiate between reproducing the insanity of a Thanksgiving run amok and making that nightmare amusing. What results is a film with some bright spots but whose effect is finally as muddled and wearying as the event itself sometimes is.

For Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter), the annual family reunion could not come at a less promising time. Suffering from a wicked head cold and just fired from her job as an art restorer, Claudia is also worried about leaving her 16-year-old daughter Kitt (Claire Danes) home alone, a concern that is intensified when Kitt tells her, at the Chicago airport no less, that she is going to use the weekend to have her first sexual experience.

Waiting for Claudia back home in Baltimore are her stress-generating parents. Mother Adele (Anne Bancroft) is a nonstop talker and chain-smoker who thinks Claudia is wasting her life "filling in holes in dead people's pictures." Her heedless babbling has inevitably turned husband Henry (a still light-on-his-feet Charles Durning) into the silent partner in their marriage.

Worn down by the deluge, Claudia hopes that her gay younger brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.) will join the group, but when he does she half wonders why she cared. A terrible practical joker, with emphasis on the terrible, Tommy shows up with a handsome hulk with the unlikely name of Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), leading Claudia to wonder what happened to Tommy's partner Jack.

Though the arrival of Tommy is supposed to get "Home for the Holidays" into high comic gear, it has the opposite effect. While the film believes him to be a lovable scamp whose idea of fun is taking embarrassing nude Polaroids of his sister, he comes off more like an immature jerk who is part of the family problem, not a potential solution.

This inability to correctly judge the emotional impact its characters are having on viewers causes problems for "Holidays" from beginning to end. Claudia manages to remain sympathetic, but few of her relatives duplicate that feat.

Adele's sister Glady (Geraldine Chaplin), for instance, who lives with 210 plants and her memories, is supposed to be a pure spirit but comes off as a shopworn eccentric. And Claudia and Tommy's sister Joanne and her husband, Walter (Cynthia Stevenson and Steve Guttenberg), are such feeble foils as the token squares that the fun we are supposed to have at their expense seems hardly worth the effort.

As the big day wears on and on, various family members drink too much and reveal a variety of troublesome secrets. It's all supposed to be great fun, but Foster is not the first beginning director (this is her second time behind the camera, after "Little Man Tate") to prove that this type of material is a lot tougher to get right than it seems. Farce is by nature arbitrary, but we should be so dazzled by events we don't notice, which is not at all what happens here.

Foster and Richter, of course, want to do more than make audiences laugh; they want us to be touched by their characters' humanity and take an interest in a budding romance, but that rarely is the case. Instead we end up marking time and wishing we were elsewhere. When father Henry turns a garden hose on some particularly obstreperous family members, it's hard not to wish he would soak the whole movie and be done with it.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic material, language and brief drug use. Times guidelines: more tedious than offensive.


'Home for the Holidays'

Holly Hunter: Claudia Larson

Robert Downey Jr.: Tommy Larson

Anne Bancroft: Adele Larson

Charles Durning: Henry Larson

Dylan McDermott: Leo Fish

Geraldine Chaplin: Aunt Glady

An Egg Pictures production, presented by Polygram Filmed Entertainment, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Jodie Foster. Producers Peggy Rajski, Jodie Foster. Executive producer Stuart Kleinman. Screenplay W. D. Richter, based on a short story by Chris Radant. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editor Lynzee Klingman. Costumes Susan Lyall. Music Mark Isham. Production design Andrew McAlpine. Art director Jim Tocci. Set decorator Barbara Drake. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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