Saving the heartwarming stories for Christmas, Thanksgiving tales wallow in the jaded and dysfunctional.
Does anyone have a good time at Thanksgiving? Even Charlie Brown courts turkey day misery and defeat in the classic Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: His friends invite themselves over, then decide that popcorn, pretzels and toast would make a great holiday dinner.
But in the end they all learn the true meaning of Thanksgiving. And there's your standard Thanksgiving plot: disaster and cynicism redeemed by friendship and community.
If most Christmas stories feel the need to be heartwarming, most Thanksgiving stories wallow in the jaded and dysfunctional-then remind us how much we all love and need each other. It's a way to have a believable story and add holiday sentiment too.
As Katie (pre-Tom) Holmes says in Pieces of April, "Once there was this one day where everybody seemed to know they needed each other. This one day when they knew for certain that they couldn't do it alone."
So what Thanksgiving tips do we pick up from DVDs? For starters:
Don't Take Your Family Hostage
In the new Amergasian indie Ethan Mao, the hero's kicked out by his scary dad and stepmom for being gay. So he decides to break back into their house on-surprise!-Thanksgiving, because they'll be away. But then-surprise!-they're not, so he takes them hostage and they have to hash out their conflicts and secrets and angst right there. The movie's overwrought, but it's a great metaphor: Family Thanksgiving stories might as well be hostage dramas.
Don't Make a Move on Your Son's Girlfriend
In The Myth of Fingerprints, the underrated Thanksgiving drama starring ER cutie Noah Wyle, chilly dad Roy Scheider makes a pass at his son's girlfriend-maybe just to get away from his brooding brood of Chekhovian mopesters, including Blythe Danner as his wife and Julianne Moore as his vulgar daughter. Written and directed by Moore's husband Bart Freundlich, this is a grim but pitch-perfect entry in the Thanksgiving-sucks file.
Don't Make a Move on Your Wife's Sister
In Woody Allen's classic Hannah and Her Sisters, which follows a family from one Thanksgiving to another, Lee leaves her misanthropic husband for the husband of her too-perfect sister Hannah. In one of the Woodman's last great movies, you get all this family drama-including Dianne Wiest's Oscar-winning performance as the ditzy sister, and Mia Farrow's real-life mom Maureen O'Sullivan as Hannah's boozy mother-plus Farrow's real New York apartment, before her own family life became a wee bit dysfunctional itself.
Don't Make a Move on Your Dad's Wife
Headed home to New York for Thanksgiving, Tadpole's 15-year-old hero hopes to seduce his stepmom (the formidable Sigourney Weaver), but failing at that (at least temporarily), winds up instead with her best friend Eve (Bebe Neuwirth). This short, sharp comedy ranks just behind Hannah as a stylish inside look at Thanksgiving, Manhattan-style.
Don't Announce Your Divorce
"Reliving past pain and getting depressed is what Thanksgiving is all about," according to Friends' Chandler Bing-"the king of bad Thanksgivings," as Ross calls him-who spends one of his Thanksgivings (season four) huddled in a box. Not that he really cares, since his parents told him they were splitting up on Thanksgiving, and now he'd rather just eat grilled cheese and Funions. It's no accident that this classic sitcom-with every episode now available on DVD-featured an annual Thanksgiving episode, since the holiday theme of bonding together to triumph over cynicism and jadedness is, after all, the theme of the show itself-"I'll be there for you" and all that.
Don't Barge in on Your Daughter in the Bathroom
In Home for the Holidays, the most comprehensive Thanksgiving movie ever made, Holly Hunter's level-headed but freshly unemployed heroine has a lot more on her mind than just her noisy, intrusive mom (played inevitably by Anne Bancroft). Her family has enough eccentrics for every viewer to identify with at least one-from the gay brother to the teenage daughter ready to lose her virginity to the nutty aunt, dotty parents and uptight siblings. Oh, and it's directed by Jodie Foster, who's obviously got some issues of her own.
Don't Surprise Your Sister
The Pascal family in the strenuously outrageous House of Yes is off-the-wall even by Thanksgiving's dysfunctional standards, and Jackie-O (the ever-outre Parker Posey) hits the roof when her brother comes home for Thanksgiving with an unexpected fiancee. (Maybe you'd feel the same way if Tori Spelling were going to be your sister-in-law.) Jackie's obsessed with the Kennedys, so Thanksgiving has a special dark meaning for her.
Don't Leave Home at All
John Hughes loved his Thanksgiving odd-couple travel plot so much, he used it twice (and then again at Christmas in Home Alone). In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, uptight Steve Martin and buffoonish John Candy share a misadventure-filled ride trying to get home for the holiday. In Dutch, lunkhead Ed O'Neill drives north with his snooty 12-year-old stepson-to-be. Candy's patented laughing-through-his-tears persona conveys all by itself the need for Thanksgiving togetherness. Of course Thanksgiving's also all about the food, so we also learn:
Don't Forget the Mac and Cheese
In What's Cooking?, a comedy/drama devoted entirely to the Thanksgivings of four ethnic families in L.A. (African-American, Jewish, Latino and Vietnamese), Audrey (Alfre Woodard) makes the critical mistake-from her mother-in-law's perspective-of serving a feast with no mac and cheese. The Vietnamese son's hiding a gun under his bed, though, so this seems like a relatively minor problem. Veering from farce to melodrama, the movie's overstuffed yet leaves you wanting more.
Don't Spoil the Toast
"Dear Lord," toasts Christina Ricci's downer teen in The Ice Storm, "thank you for Thanksgiving, and for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands and stuff ourselves like pigs while children in Africa and Asia are napalmed." Next thing you know in this heavy-handed period tragedy, there's a metaphorical ice storm that freezes all the frozen people in their frozen suburban town. Bummer.
Don't Forget to Check the Oven
In Pieces of April, April's family doesn't trust her to do turkey right. They stock up on donuts on their way to her apartment, and she confirms their worst fears when her East Village oven stops working and she has to rely on the kindness (not!) of grouchy New York neighbors like persnickety Wayne (Sean Hayes). With cancer, interracial romance, an Oscar-nominated performance from ever-acerbic Patricia Clarkson, Katie Holmes pre-Tom, and a well-judged mix of comedy, drama and pathos, this is the contempo turkey movie to beat.
And when it's all done ...
Be Careful Where You Throw the Garbage
In Alice's Restaurant, the shaggy 1969 movie based on Arlo Guthrie's story song of the same name, all hell breaks loose after hippie Guthrie dumps his friend Alice's Thanksgiving trash in the wrong place. The movie's funky, hippie-happy spirit is a breath of fresh air compared to the sour, miserable Thanksgivings in all these other movies. Say this for these hippies: They know how to enjoy themselves without being miserable first.