Movie Dude: Even the toughest guys are afraid of family holidays

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"Home for the Holidays"

Starring: Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Durning, Dylan McDermott, Steve Guttenberg and Anne Bancroft

Rated: PG-13 for language

Running time: 103 minutes

Released: 1995

I knew someone once who was a tough-as-nails firefighter. This guy was fearless. He would run into burning buildings that could collapse on him at any time without a moment’s hesitation.

I asked him one time if something like a burning building didn’t scare him, then what did. He looked at me with a straight face and said, “Thanksgiving.”

I looked back at him, positively befuddled as to how on Earth something as joyous as Thanksgiving could possibly scare this large, 200-plus-pound firefighter. I asked him why and again he looked at me deadpan and, shaking his head, said, “Man, you don’t know my family.”

That pretty much seems to sum up Thanksgiving for a lot of people. Fear. And that’s why I picked “Home For the Holidays” this week. It’s a comedy about how sometimes going home for the holidays can make running into a burning building seem like child’s play.

“Home” starts out with Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) being unexpectedly fired from her job while also finding out that her 16-year-old daughter plans on going all the way with her boyfriend. She learns all this right before hopping on a plane to Baltimore to be with her family for Thanksgiving. Obviously it’s not her week.

Immediately you’re introduced to her neurotic, chain-smoking mother (Anne Bancroft) and her off-the-wall, but lovable, father (Charles Durning). Claudia goes through the motions of being home again and the petrified look on her face says it all.

Thankfully, her younger brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.) and his friend Leo (Dylan McDermott) surprise them all by arriving without warning in the middle of the night. Tommy is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants character who’ll do and say just about anything to get a rise out of people, ultimately getting a laugh out of you, the viewer. He’s also Claudia’s savior and the only one there she can really depend on.

As the movie goes on the characters you’re introduced to become more and more erratic, leading to a tumultuous showdown once they’re all together for Thanksgiving dinner. The scene is classic in the same vein as the dinner scene in “The Birdcage.”

I rarely laugh as loud as I do when I watch Durning stain his tie. The fact that he’s so upset by it, despite everything else that’s going on at that moment, cracks me up to no end.

While it quickly becomes apparent that Claudia’s family is troubled to say the least, their flaws ultimately make you like them that much more. Maybe it’s their quirky behavior, or maybe you see a little bit of your own family in them. Regardless of what it is, these are people you can empathize, if not sympathize, with. (Except for her sister, Joanne, played by Cynthia Stevenson. There just doesn’t seem to be anything redeeming about her at all. I suppose there’s one in every family.)

You can feel for almost all of them, but the two people you relate with the most are Claudia and Tommy. Their reactions to the mayhem going on around them are, more or less, the same reactions any “normal” person would have. They’re the audience, so to speak, only they’re stuck smack in the middle of it.

Claudia has the common sense while Tommy is uncommonly nonsensical. And while he’s usually the catalyst for the chaos, he’s a very refreshing presence because he doesn’t take life as seriously as everyone else around him does. In a family like theirs it’s a vital trait to have; and in a move like this he’ll make you laugh to no end.

Bottom line, “Home For the Holidays” is a can’t-miss for this Thanksgiving. It’ll make you appreciate your own family that much more — or at least make you feel better knowing yours isn’t the only crazy family around.

The Movie Dude, Joe Altomere of Fort Myers, grew up in his parents’ video store in Plantersville, Texas. He owns close to 2,000 DVDs and Blu-ray discs and considers that only the start of his collection. E-mail him at

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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