In Search of the Perfect Thanksgiving Holiday Movie Meal

Still from Home for the Holidays

If you think of film as a reflection of real life, then the fact that Thanksgiving meals in holiday movies often end in disaster should come as no surprise. The situation is fraught with disappointment. Perhaps this dissatisfaction comes from the unusual amount of preparation required to pull off the ideal holiday dinner. Of course, there is the planning and shopping (elements seldom captured on film), but then there are also the competing and often conflicting agendas that arrive along with the array of invited guests and family members, many of whom travel great distances to sit down at the Thanksgiving table.

So much effort goes into an event that ends up lasting the time it takes to eat dinner, that it’s not surprising to be let down when those assembled push back from the table and move on to other pursuits. It’s also not unusual for the cook to be the one most aggrieved. Days of preparation end in sad, picked over carcasses. Refrigerator storage space gets turned into bizarre 3-D puzzles of leftovers. And of course, some subset of overstuffed guests must do the dishes.

I watched about a dozen movies in search of an accurate portrait of this very American holiday, and I found it, though several of the courses of this cinematic smorgasbord left me hungry for something more. True to form, many explored the impending doom engendered by Thanksgiving. We wait for the kids to arrive safely and wonder what kind of baggage they will bring to the table.

In film as in real life, the main event occurs when all assembled sit down to dinner. Tempers flare and old grievances surface. Is this a cliche that we have learned from the films and looped back into reality? Or should we adopt the stance that Thanksgiving is the stuff of drama because there are so many good examples of these conflicts based in real life?

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It’s all about unrealistic expectations. Often the Thanksgiving table ends up populated with people (family or not) who should never be brought together in the first place.

Still from She's Gotta Have It
Still from She's Gotta Have It

Though She’s Gotta Have It is not my favorite Spike Lee joint (by far), the dinner scene is famous for portraying just this situation. In Lee’s debut feature, the main character, Nola Darling, is juggling three radically different men. She decides to cook her first Thanksgiving dinner and invites the trio to enjoy the meal. The men spend their time insulting one another and competing for Nola’s affections. The meal itself is a sad afterthought.

Still from Hannah and Her Sisters
Still from Hannah and Her Sisters

Similarly, Hannah and Her Sisters (also by a very long shot NOT my favorite Woody Allen film), takes place over three consecutive Thanksgiving dinners. During this time we watch the three sisters, Hannah, Lee and Holly struggle in their personal lives and in their relationships to one another. Spoiler alert, Lee conducts an affair with Hannah’s husband, Elliot, and Holly ends up married to Hannah’s ex-husband. I spent the whole movie waiting for the betrayals, petty jealousies and grievances to erupt over the Thanksgiving meal, but was sadly disappointed at the lack of this film’s fireworks.

In (my least favorite) Christopher Guest film, For Your Consideration, a tiny independent film, originally titled Home for Purim becomes the subject of Oscar buzz. Once award hysteria ensues, the film is re-titled Home for Thanksgiving and those supposedly under consideration end up disappointed when nominations are announced. The most hilarious scene in the film, however, is Purim dinner, which, like the rest of the film within the film, can best be described as Yiddish Norman Rockwell.

One lesson I took away from my research: Don’t ask your teenage daughter, newly politicized through constant TV viewing of the Watergate hearings, to say grace at Thanksgiving. This is a rookie mistake, as any parent who has made it through the raising of teenagers can probably attest. In Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, which takes place in 1970’s upper-middle-class Connecticut, adult moral confusion (see ‘key party’ on Wikipedia) collides with early teenage sexual exploration. Kevin Kline and Joan Allen play parents Ben and Elena Hood to Tobey McGuire (Paul) and a 15-year-old Christina Ricci (Wendy). At the vaunted Thanksgiving table, Ben makes the grievous error and Wendy delivers the thanks that ends up as “no thanks.” (By the way, The Ice Storm is a perfect movie, holiday or no, if you prefer your WASPS cold and confused.)

Lesson Two: The one who spends the most time prepping the dinner will be the most disappointed, or may reap the highest emotional reward. Both are true in Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April, in which April, an estranged daughter played by pre-Cruise Katie Holmes, volunteers to make Thanksgiving dinner for a family that clearly cannot stand her. Holmes and her boyfriend live in a low-rent, five-floor walk-up somewhere in pre-Disneyfied Manhattan. April wakes up Thanksgiving morning and begins making a meal not one viewer will want to eat. Once her boyfriend leaves the apartment, Holmes discovers, after removing shoes and other items from the cavity, that her oven doesn’t work. Her quest for the rest of the film is to 1) introduce herself to her neighbors and 2) borrow space in a warm oven long enough to cook a turkey. While April busies herself with this task, her family begrudgingly makes the journey into the city from the suburbs.

Lesson Three: The more uptight you are, the more likely you will end up with food all over your perfect dress. Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays was made in 1995 well before gay marriage went mainstream, so there is a character and a plot line that might seem a bit dated, but was lovingly wrought when the film first came out. The cast is great, featuring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr. and Cynthia Stevenson as siblings Claudia, Tommy and Joanne Larson. After a quick series of surprises and setbacks in Chicago, Claudia boards a plane and heads home to Baltimore for the holiday with parents Adele and Henry (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning). On the plane she makes a distress call to gay brother Tommy, who arrives with Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott at his most dreamy) in tow. The family home is pure chaos, TV on, music playing, mom and dad dancing, mom smoking Virginia Slims, inappropriate kissing. Competing turkeys (one organic) crowd the holiday table. Hijinks ensue that end when — spoiler alert — high-strung, homophobic sister Joanne gets a non-organic turkey in the lap. In the movies, this is the punishment for being uptight, followed by uncomfortable and infuriatingly unapologetic laughter.

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Overall, this filmic lesson ends with the understanding that the more we expect, the less we are likely to get. It’s the holiday season; control is an illusion. It’s not about cooking or eating. Whatever preparations you made, remind yourself that you made them with love. What Thanksgiving is all about, at least according to the movies, is breathing and getting through. We’ve really got to be thankful for whoever and whatever comes our way.

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