The Main Event

Hollywood's knock-down, drag-out, pass-the-potatoes holiday feasts offer plenty to chew on and laugh at, just before the relatives arrive.

November 27, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Ah, Thanksgiving Day.

Genial games of Parcheesi in front of a crackling fire. Burbling children playing Red Rover on the front yard. Grammy in a cheery sweater with a turkey outlined against an autumnal field. The companionable noises of holiday food preparation. The loving embrace of family. The loyal golden retriever wagging its ...

Oh, brother. Enough already.

Who's kidding whom anyway? Outside the saccharin-soaked imagination of the people who create Hallmark cards, do these sort of serene, life-affirming, goodwill-toward-all Thanksgivings actually exist? Does anybody really have family get-togethers that are free of tension, resentment, boredom, bickering and recrimination?

OK, maybe your family does, but the rest of us, to paraphrase Woody Allen, live back on Planet Earth. We know exactly how combustible family "event" dinners can be. If we didn't know, why would we enjoy seeing them portrayed so much in films.

Movies have given us some hilarious, excruciating family dinner scenes, the perfect antidote to the maudlin version Madison Avenue loves to trot out this time of year. What follows are some of the most notable among them - containing moments of such awkwardness, humiliation and rancor that perhaps they can comfort you through whatever rigors you are enduring today.

Oh, Happy Thanksgiving. Or maybe we should say: Good luck.

`Avalon' (1990)

The third of Barry Levinson's Baltimore movies, this is the multigenerational saga of the Krichinsky family, Jews who arrived in this country early in the 20th century and embraced America with a fervor that only immigrants can feel. For our purposes, the movie is memorable for two Thanksgiving scenes. In the first, around a boisterous holiday table, the grandmother, played by Joan Plowright, expresses confusion about the whole purpose of the holiday. "I don't understand this holiday," she says, speaking for a multitude who feel as much emotional connection to the Pilgrims as they do to Egyptian mummies. "I'll never understand this holiday," she says. "We have to get the turkey and we have to kill it and give thanks. If it wasn't for this holiday, we wouldn't have turkey. I don't eat turkey the rest of the year. Why do I have to eat it now?"

The scene establishes the tradition that one of the great-uncles, Gabriel Krichinsky, is late every year but insists that no one carve the turkey before he arrives. This sets the stage for a much later Thanksgiving, after part of the family has moved to the suburbs, leaving those left behind in the city resentful. This time, although Gabriel is late, the family doesn't wait for him, giving rise to a wonderful fight when he finally does show up.

"You started without me?" Gabriel roars. "You cut the turkey without me?" He keeps repeating this accusation, only he pronounces the word in his heavy East European accent: "toi-key."

"Your own flesh and blood," he whines, "you couldn't wait?"

He leaves, never to speak to his younger brother again.

Only families can allow the smallest slights to be blown up into world wars with consequences that last as long. Thanksgiving, a minefield.

`Home for the Holidays' (1995)

Jodie Foster directed this film, and, despite an enviable cast - Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning and Robert Downey Jr. - it isn't any good. But, it, too, is set in Baltimore and contains a particularly instructive Thanksgiving dinner. The climax features an ugly fight among siblings in which a relentlessly obnoxious Downey, while carving the turkey, flips the bird onto the lap of sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson). With her head slathered in dressing, she begins a tirade, denouncing Downey for apparently wearing a dress at his gay "marriage" ceremony.

Big family get-togethers are often merely staging grounds for long, pent-up hostilities. Needless to say, the bitter exchanges that ensue detract somewhat from the holiday cheer. In Home for the Holidays, the brouhaha prompts matriarch Bancroft to observe what many are most grateful for on this day: "That we don't have to go through this again for another year except we do because those bastards went and put Christmas in the middle just to punish us."

The verbal dinner fight leads to a physical fight between brothers-in-law on the front lawn. Durning, Bancroft's husband in the film, breaks it up by turning the hose on the combatants. To the gawking neighbors ogling the spectacle, he growls, "Go back to your own goddamn holidays!"

`Pieces of April' (2003)

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