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'Thanksgiving Day': Hit or $259-Million Turkey?

November 24, 1996|Bruce McCall | Bruce McCall is a regular contributor to the New Yorker

NEW YORK — 'Thanksgiving Day," billed as a "can't-miss combination of historical costume drama, screwball comedy, animal adventure, film noir and doomsday thriller," hits screens nationwide this holiday weekend. And all movieland is holding its collective breath.

Will this colossally costly production--$259 million-- yet again up the industry ante for blockbuster hits, or will it founder on the hubris of makers who have too brazenly defied movie-making convention? Will such spectacles as 10,000 animatronic mad turkeys (at $1 million each) storming the Massachusetts Bay Colony (a 52-square-mile Indonesian set, on rollers) be enough to offset the movie's eccentric--some say suicidal--casting, with no starring roles but more than 200 cameos, including Danny DeVito as Miles Standish, Sandra Bullock as a blatantly bisexual Captain John Smith and Marlon Brando in a $5-million, 49-second role as Sir Walter Raleigh's wife?

More basic: Can a computer-generated script, synthesizing the plots of the last 100 box-office hits, generate a story line that hooks the viewer, makes for drama, even makes sense? Inside sources whisper that the recruited audience at a recent Glendale advance screening was kept from bolting after the first half-hour only by gifts of free butterball turkeys.

Early buzz is mixed. "They never make it clear whether the Indians are inhabited by space aliens or the space aliens are inhabited by the Indians," huffs one rival studio exec. "There's a big wick-ayup chase scene that just comes out of left field. And the intercut suspense thing, with the turkey-basting and the clock, is a plain steal from 'High Noon.' "

On the other hand, "Thanksgiving Day" boosters are predicting strong word of mouth for the movie's lavish special effects. "Nobody's ever seen 400 Puritans eat 4,000 ears of corn and then swell up and burst," exults one. "And the fantasy sequence, where Pocahontas smokes her first tobacco leaf and goes on a head trip through 5,000 years of native American history--naked--is pure cinematic sorcery."

All sides agree that historical accuracy is not "Thanksgiving Day" 's strong point--not with Julia Roberts as Jean Harlow dancing on the table where the Declaration of Independence is being signed, and Clint Eastwood playing Abraham Lincoln as one of the signers.

"Come on," defends one studio veteran. "Who cares about verisimilitude in a feel-good holiday flick? Besides, a guy as tall as Clint--who else is he going to play, Napoleon? Why do you think we got Dustin?"

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