'Home' Groan Movie Review: Holly Hunter as Claudia is a rare spark of warmth in a soon-to-be-dyslexic family living, in all places, in Baltimore


What's worse than going to hell in a handbasket? According to Jodie Foster, it's going to Baltimore at Thanksgiving.

That's the theme of her new picture, "Home for the Holidays," which is like any family gathering on the fourth November Thursday, tense, hot, close, unpleasant, mean-spirited and harder on feelings than it is on turkeys.

In fact, the turkey has it the easiest: It just lies there and gets cut to pieces. The cast members have to act as they get cut to pieces.

The movie chronicles the winding-down-toward-total-dysfunction undoings of the Larson clan, nestled in a little house near Memorial Stadium, though it could be Riverfront, Dyche or Cleveland Municipal for all the local color.

Hunter plays Claudia, a 40-year-old single mother who in a single day loses her job (at Chicago's Art Institute), makes a pass at the man who fired her, learns her 15-year-old daughter (Claire Danes) is planning to give up her virginity and, to top it all, has to fly back to Charm City, where worse things still await her:

One slightly senile father (Charles Durning).

One slightly yakky mother (Anne Bancroft).

One very gay brother (Robert Downey Jr.).

One very gay brother's possibly gay friend (Dylan McDermott).

One crazy aunt (Geraldine Chaplin). (I know, there's always a crazy aunt.)

One pitiful ex-boyfriend (David Strathairn).

One square sister (Cynthia Stevenson).

One very square brother-in-law (Steve Guttenberg).

Mix until explosion; use spatula to clean gobs off ceiling.

It's my sad duty to report that yes, indeed, a turkey does go sailing through the air, but don't worry, it only lands on a Republican, so there's no harm done. In fact, the whole movie indulges in a great deal of triumphant crowing at the expense of square people, you know, those annoying breeders who work at boring jobs and raise children and pay taxes and go to church and fight wars and run the country and never do anything for themselves but only for others and never come up with any amusing quips. Thank heavens for that! I'm tired of movies that claim to be "diverse," actually being pleasant to the orthodox and pretending that Republicans have hearts, too. It's so unnecessary.

I liked the flatulence jokes the best. That W. D. Richter, can he write or what? I wonder if he wrote just words -- "Aunt Glady lets one" -- or if he was more explicit, like "Aunt Glady lets one that sounds like a sack of burlap being ripped in a gallon of 10W40." Whatever, the guy can knock out a mean gas joke!

The movie swirls this way and that. Aunt Glady in the car is a low point. Anytime Robert Downey is sending up homosexuality with a campy, bitchy impersonation of a gay, complete to winks, pinches, leering suggestions and so forth, is a low point. Steve Guttenberg's performance, so entropic it seems to be etched in depleted uranium, is a low point. Anne Bancroft's smoking is a low point, but an odd moment when she contemplates her body in a mirror is sweetly poignant.

Cynthia Stevenson is trashed for the crime of not approving of her brother's alternative lifestyle choice and for marrying a banker -- high crimes and misdemeanors in the moral lexicon of Hollywood -- and that's a low point. Her furious dignity through it all -- that's a high point.

And Hunter is always a high point. She's fallen back on always playing some variant of herself (she could be the cop in "Copycat" off-duty in this one), and the performance shows tendencies toward going generic: She's every harried woman in the world in very bold strokes, without a lot of character specificity. On the other hand, she's always ingratiating and gives the film what little heart it has.

On the local yokel front, let me point out a couple of cheat scenes that big boys will be mature enough to let by, but that will continue to irk we pre-adolescents. I get that movies can play tricks with geography and all, and that they needn't be absurdly literal-minded, but at the same time we do live in Baltimore, Md., and we do recognize certain realities. So it's bothersome when Holly Hunter claims to be stepping out of a Chicago art museum and it's the Baltimore Museum of Art. OK, fine, but then we head out to O'Hare and it's BWI with a Chicago cop standing in front of it. So then Hunter gets in a plane and lands and -- if the movie had a sense of humor she'd land at O'Hare, but no -- it's still BWI! I know, I know, I'm being silly, who cares, it's only a movie, fer crying out loud! And that's all it is.

'Home for the Holidays'

Starring Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr.

Directed by Jodie Foster

Released by Paramount

Rated PG-13 (nudity, sexual content)

Sun Score: **

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