Although Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a Christmas movie, it’s sometimes broadcast on Thanksgiving Day. That makes perfect sense, actually. With its tale of a woebegone Everyman who comes to learn gratitude for the life he’s been given, Capra’s movie matches perfectly the sentiment of the November holiday.
Actually, there haven’t been all that many honest-to-God Thanksgiving-oriented films made. It just doesn’t seem the most dramatic of holidays. For Halloween there’s a ceaseless parade of monsters, slashers and psychos. And Christmas has some flamboyant characters too: Santa, Scrooge, the Grinch. But who are Thanksgiving’s main dramatis personae? A bunch of weather-beaten Puritans and some apprehensive but peckish Native Americans all sitting down together to stuff their faces. I mean, these people ate (rather than drank) their Wild Turkey. Building a movie around them? We’re not just yawning because of the tryptophan.
Some filmmakers have used Thanksgiving as a backdrop, or partial backdrop, for their scenarios. Woody Allen, for one. He framed “Hannah and Her Sisters” with two Thanksgiving celebrations. And in “Broadway Danny Rose” he included a chase scene through a warehouse holding the giant balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. All that helium, of course, fueled the comedy’s soundtrack.
I could think of two films worth recommending in which the Thanksgiving holiday actually takes center stage. Not surprisingly, both are comic dramas in which family dysfunction provides the conflict.
First is director Jodie Foster’s 1995 “Home for the Holidays,” in which Holly Hunter and Robert Downey, Jr. play siblings who return home to parents played by Charles Durning and Anne Bancroft. Dylan McDermott costarred as Downey’s character’s boyfriend.
What I recall most from this film was the affection and camaraderie between Hunter and Downey. But Foster made this project during Downey’s troubled years, and there was off-screen dysfunction going on too. Downey later admitted that he was using heroin throughout the shoot and creating “projects” when not before the camera: “If you came into my trailer when I wasn’t working, I might have been constructing a large eighth-scale model of the space shuttle.”
The second Thanksgiving film is 2003’s “Pieces of April,” in which a pre-Cruise Katie Holmes stars as April Burns, a lightly punkish young woman living in a dilapidated walk-up in New York City who tries to find a working oven for her turkey in time for the arrival of her suburban family (including her cancer-battling mother, played by Patricia Clarkson). The film, written and directed, by Peter Hedges, was made in 16 days on a miniscule budget. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, Hedges struck a deal with the entertainment unions. He received $10 for scripting the film and $10 for directing it. Actors were paid $248 per day.
“Pieces of April” is the film that really made me sit up and pay attention to Patricia Clarkson. After seeing her performance here, I wanted more. The film also features a cameo appearance by Sean Hayes as a very odd neighbor of April’s. Clearly Hayes was trying to show he could play somebody different from his flip and hyper character on “Will and Grace.” And the weirdo he embodies in this film is about as far apart from Jack McFarland as you can get.
Anyway, it’s a little late now for Netflix, but if you can find a video store still in business this long weekend, you might consider getting one or both of these films on DVD. Doesn’t everyone need a break from watching football, nuking leftovers, and cutting ZZZs on the sofa?
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Other Thanksgiving-related films: “Nobody’s Fool,” “The Ice Storm,” “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” “Funny People”