Overstuffed bird

While you're watching Jodie Foster's second directorial effort (she hit notes both gorgeous and discordant with Little Man Tate, her 1991 debut as a filmmaker), you might find yourself wondering exactly when you've seen a comedy-drama paced like this one before. Certainly, most people expect the laughs and the pathos in any competently entertaining film to come in quick succession, but Foster may have set a new world record with Home For the Holidays, her high-adrenaline portrait of the resentful relationships among one Midwestern family gathered together for Thanksgiving in 1995.

It seems that everybody in this pre-fab tribe has a bone to pick even after the ceremonial bird's been divided--mothers and fathers lament the way decades come between them; brothers and sisters repeat the same immature, petty cycles they started as children; and bored grandkids sit patiently while the adults make asses of themselves.

This is, more or less, the itinerary for the fictitious clan that director Foster presides over. While she seems to respect each of the vastly different characters in W.D. Richter's script, the filmmaker is less interested in encouraging the actors to fully realize their roles than in crowding them together in contrived confrontations that only reinforce the most clichd aspects of their personalities. Home For the Holidays is crammed full of recognizable moments for any grownup who's chafed at returning to the fold. But the film's central problem--its strangely elliptical narrative rhythm--ensures you'll be intrigued by the dagger-tongued conversations and petty recriminations, yet frustrated that none of the characters are allowed to emerge as whole, believable individuals.

As the picture opens, Claudia (Holly Hunter) loses her job at a prestigious Chicago art museum because of budget cuts. She's a talented painter in her own right, but has settled for a position restoring recently acquired masterpieces. In the eyes of her ever-vigilant and always argumentative family, this is a double humiliation for Claudia, who everyone agrees has the "glamorous," even if most of them don't quite understand what she does.

Leaving behind her 15-year-old daughter (Claire Danes from TV's long-gone, much-lamented My So-Called Life), Hunter travels to Baltimore to stay with her parents (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning) for a weekend that includes a mysterious guest who may be the lover of her antagonistic gay brother, as well as an uptight sister and her conservative banker husband. Top it off with an eccentric aunt (Geraldine Chaplin) who suffers from memory lapses as well as uncontrollable fits of flatulence, and you have a family celebration that only pricks the surface of the skin when it should burrow into the marrow.

Home For the Holidays stampedes the viewer with cliched family resentments, when the action would be better served by helping us understand why these people dislike each other so intensely. Jodie Foster obviously believes that the animosities outlined in Richter's script will be familiar enough to carry the burden of characterization. But the film takes such an unrelentingly bitter stance toward family relationships that it starts to resemble, of all movies, Woody Allen's 1978 zeitgeist weeper Interiors. Although it boasted a handful of remarkable performances, that film contained non-stop familial squabbling, with none of the carefully choreographed highs and lows that such difficult material needs to become cathartic. Geraldine Page, who played the high-strung matriarch of that insufferable clan with typical brilliance, finally threw herself in the ocean because she couldn't take it anymore.

Subtract the graduate degrees and glamorous careers and add a dash more humor, and Home For the Holidays is Interiors among the Baltimore working class. And just like Allen's hit-or-miss first drama, Foster comes across like she's trying to achieve a raw sort of mood, and not mining the material itself for possibilities.

There is no shortage of important moments--not to mention actorly enthusiasm--in this latest project by Jodie Foster, but like the underappreciated Little Man Tate, Foster clearly has a ways to go when it comes to narrative. Both Little Man Tate and Home For the Holidays contain warm, full-blooded performances which, along with the tendency of Foster's camera to flatter the faces of her performers (toward the end of Holidays, Durning delivers a knockout soliloquy in closeup about family, memory, and changing expectations), suggest she might make a better stage director than filmmaker. Ultimately, you get the feeling that Foster is pulling her very talented actors in a little red wagon behind her, proud as hell of their effortless charisma and professionalism, but not quite sure how to use those traits to tell a good story. She just trudges forward, hoping people won't notice the strain.

Home For the Holidays. Paramount. Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft. Written by W.D. Richter, based on a short story by Chris Radant. Directed by Jodie Foster. Opens November 3.

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