Everyone has the day off work, there’s a big bird on the table, and relatives you haven’t seen in awhile are sitting around watching parades and football. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Now, obviously, Thanksgiving doesn’t have quite the rich cinematic tradition that certain other holidays have enjoyed, but we’ve still watched the fourth Thursday in November unfold on the big screen enough times to inspire us to look back at some of the most noteworthy not-so-thankful Thanksgivings in movie history. We’ve gathered together an eclectic group for our list, including old favorites (Hannah and Her Sisters), indie upstarts (The House of Yes), and even a critical dud or two. Plus, as a special bonus, we’ve included the trailer for a movie that never was — so tuck in your napkins, wait for Sis to say grace, and let’s all dig in!
For many, the Addams Family movies trigger memories of MC Hammer more than anything else, but 1993’s Addams Family Values actually received better reviews than its predecessor — and it’s also noteworthy for containing one of the most hysterical Thanksgiving pageants in movie history, one which begins with turkeys singing “Eat me!” and culminates with Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams, playing Pocahontas, departing from the script written by unctuous summer camp director Gary Granger (played by Peter MacNicol) to air a list of grievances against the pilgrims before directing her tribe to burn their village to the ground. It might read like a tryptophan-induced dream of Howard Zinn’s, but it’s actually very funny — and certainly a big part of why the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum called Addams Family Values “one of the funniest, most mean-spirited satirical assaults on sunny American values since the salad days of W.C. Fields.”
Only in the ’60s could an 18-minute talking blues song by a 19-year-old white kid from New England become such a big hit that it inspired a movie helmed by an A-list director like Arthur Penn, but that’s exactly what happened with Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” It’s a rambling tale of a pair of Massachusetts hippies who found themselves dragged to court for illegally dumping garbage on Thanksgiving Day — only to watch the arresting officer break down in tears of frustration when he discovers that the presiding judge is blind and can’t see the glossy color photos meticulously taken of the scene of the crime. And you thought you had it bad, watching the parade on your grandmother’s couch! As a movie, Alice’s Restaurant is arguably most interesting as a ’60s relic, or an early example of meta filmmaking (the real-life Alice makes a cameo, and officer William “Obie” Obanhein stars as himself), but critics have been generally kind to it; as Roger Ebert succinctly put it, the movie is “good work in a minor key.”
Thanksgiving, like any family holiday, can be something of a double-edged blade: It has the potential to both bring loved ones together, but in doing so, it also has the ability to exacerbate tensions — and given that the protagonists in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (adapted from the short story by Annie Proulx) spend their adult lives struggling with their barely expressed love for one another, you might expect that turkey and mashed potatoes would serve as a garnish for some remarkably tense moments. You’d be right, too — both Ennis (played by Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) suffer through some bleak Thanksgivings, none more awkward than the one which acts as a prelude to Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams) confronting him about his secret affair. Awk-warrrrd — and all part of what Metromix.com’s Matt Pais called “a gorgeous meditation on the sorrow of finding everything you want and not knowing how to keep it.”
The surviving members of the Doors disputed a lot of the material that ended up in Oliver Stone’s wildly over the top Jim Morrison biopic, including the infamous scene that depicts the late Doors frontman locking girlfriend Pamela Courson in a closet and setting it on fire — and the Thanksgiving dinner sequence in which Patricia Kennealy (played by Meg Ryan), the woman who may or may not have been his wife, ends up throwing the turkey at Morrison (Val Kilmer). Critics more or less agreed with the remaining members of the band, shrugging The Doors down to a 54 percent Tomatometer rating, although their main concern was not historical accuracy, but the problem of spending two hours watching the exploits of a guy who, despite his talent and charisma, isn’t terribly likable. As Time’s Richard Schickel noted, “the film really proves only that Jim was a bad drunk and a worse friend, and that in no way was his life exemplary,” while Lawrence.com’s Eric Melin dismisses The Doors simply as “a pretentious movie about a man haunted by a naked Indian.”
Like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 1991’s Ed O’Neill-led Dutch bears the stamp of John Hughes, who wrote the script; unlike its classic listmate, however, Dutch was a commercial non-starter at the box office, and bore the brunt of many irate reviews from critics like the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, who called Hughes “a man more prolific than Stephen King and less inspired than Aaron Spelling” and declared that Dutch “shouldn’t even be allowed on planes.” The venom is easy to understand — it isn’t that Dutch is a horrible movie, per se; it’s just that Hughes had already written more than one very similar script — and Dutch, which pits O’Neill against his girlfriend’s prepubescent son during a pitfall-laden journey home for Thanksgiving, didn’t benefit from its superficial resemblance to Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Ah, Thanksgiving. What would it be without turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and lustfully eyeing your wife’s sister? Actually, most of us wouldn’t know about that last item on the list, but for Michael Caine in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s a different story. The film opens with Caine’s Elliot conducting some Allen-esque hand wringing over his secret crush on his sister-in-law, Lee (Barbara Hershey), who he takes every opportunity to “bump into” around town (Manhattan, natch). It makes for a rather uncomfortable holiday for Elliot — but few writers do grown-up angst as well as Allen, and he was near the top of his game here; as Combustible Celluloid’s Jeffrey M. Anderson wrote, “It’s a masterwork.” (Hannah‘s final act centers around a different kind of Thanksgiving celebration, but we don’t want to spoil the ending for you here.)
Unlike some of the films on this list, Home for the Holidays doesn’t rely on Thanksgiving as a backdrop or a plot device — it’s actually the whole reason for the movie. In Jodie Foster’s second directorial outing, Holly Hunter plays a beleaguered single mom whose life is falling apart just in time for a holiday feast with her highly dysfunctional family. Despite a solid cast, including Anne Bancroft, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Durning, Dylan McDermott, and Claire Danes — not to mention a November release date and generally favorable reviews — Holidays failed to gain much traction at the box office, going on to gross just over $17.5 million. Still, if you manage to make room for it on DVD, you may have an experience similar to the Palo Alto Weekly’s Jim Shelby, who wrote, “I found myself shaking my head in embarrassed, smiling recognition.”
We’ve covered some unbearably awkward Thanksgivings on this list, but Tori Spelling’s holiday in The House of Yes — which finds her joining her fiancee’s family for the meal, meeting them for the first time, only to discover that his relationship with his mentally unstable twin sister is much more, ahem, complex than she’d been led to believe. Matter of fact, pretty much everyone in the family has some something lurking under the surface, and much of it will become known to poor Tori before the weekend is over. And did we mention there’s a hurricane going on during all of this? Don’t feel too bad for Ms. Spelling, though; for one of the only times in her career, she earned some of the movie’s highest marks, including praise from TV Guide’s Ken Fox, who declared her House‘s “real surprise,” calling her “perfectly cast as a lamb among wolves, and her naivete is strangely affecting.”
What do Ang Lee and Christina Ricci have against Thanksgiving, anyway? In her second appearance on this list, Ricci plays Wendy Hood, one in the series of cynical, borderline misanthropic teens she portrayed in the ’90s — and in a slight (albeit far less humorous) echo of her turn as Wednesday Addams in Addams Family Values, she uses Thanksgiving as an opportunity to lift the veil on the holiday’s darker side, delivering a soliloquy about the inherent cruelty of the celebration. Painful to watch? Indubitably — and appropriately, for a film that hinges on crushing ennui and alienation. Lee, who also directed Brokeback Mountain, which appears elsewhere on this list, received high marks for adapting Rick Moody’s tense, sad novel about suburban families in the ’70s; as the Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen put it, Lee manages to “[duplicate] on screen exactly what the writer achieves on the page.”
Katie Holmes earned critical praise for her brief appearance as a gleefully manipulative murder victim in 2001’s The Gift — and then entered a fallow period, taking roles in little-seen projects like Abandon and The Singing Detective. 2003’s Pieces of April, about a woman who invites her estranged family to her apartment to meet her boyfriend over Thanksgiving dinner, ended up being another non-starter at the box office, but at least in this case, critics applauded the film, sending screenwriter Peter Hedges’ directorial debut all the way up to 84 percent on the Tomatometer. Somewhat stereotypically for an indie production, nothing much really happens in Pieces — but given that Holmes spends much of the film struggling to get dinner made, it could be said that this is one of the few movies on this list that accurately captures the culinary drama behind the holiday. It is, in the words of Empire’s Natasha Aitken, “a shining example of just how compelling and affecting low-budget filmmaking can be when you’ve got a good story and strong cast.”
Perhaps the quintessential Thanksgiving film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles represents a critical and commercial high point for all of its principals, including Steve Martin (as repressed ad executive Neal Page), John Candy (as unintentionally obnoxious shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith), and John Hughes (as the writer and director of a film not starring Molly Ringwald). On its face, there’s very little about Planes to distinguish it from other films — how many ’80s movies feature an uptight ad exec going on some kind of transformative journey, anyway? — and where John Hughes goes, broad humor inevitably follows. But Martin and Candy play off one another brilliantly, and if any movie deserves to have a big, gooey heart beating at its center, shouldn’t it be one about the true meaning of Thanksgiving?
Finally, here’s the trailer for Eli Roth’s fake slasher film Thanksgiving, which promises “you’ll come home for the holidays… in a body bag.”
[The following clip is highly NSFW.]