Thursday, November 26, 2009

A dearth of turkey movies

If you're a film fan, chances are you've seen plenty of turkeys. But you probably haven't seen plenty of films about turkeys.

That's because, as holidays go, Thanksgiving is less well represented in Hollywood filmmaking than Flag Day.

As I was thinking of ideas for something to write related to Thanksgiving, I decided on a top 10 list of films in which the Thanksgiving dinner is a central part of the plot. As it turns out, I could only find five that I'd seen.

See, the website I write for has labels for each movie, related to plots and themes, in order to help you find similar movies. So I hopped on the page for Planes, Trains and Automobiles and followed its Thanksgiving label to see what other Thanksgiving films hadn't occurred to me in my initial brainstorm. I found only two that I'd seen beyond the initial three that I'd thought of, and one of them isn't even a movie I remember having anything to do with Thanksgiving.

At first, this Thanksgiving blackout surprised me a bit. After all, Thanksgiving is the second most hyped holiday in the United States, and carries with it the most vacation days as well. Whereas most people get only a single day off for Christmas, most get two for Thanksgiving. (Not me -- I'll be here on Friday, but figure to have plenty of time to update my blog while doing almost zero actual work.)

But then it occurred to me why this is. Thanksgiving's aforementioned big brother, Christmas, is one heckuva bully, and doesn't want to give Thanksgiving any of its own time in the spotlight.

Quite simply, a Thanksgiving-themed movie is not a great commercial bet for a movie studio -- especially if that same studio has already had its Christmas movie out for three weeks. If you're trying to hype up Christmas, hyping up Thanksgiving at the same time doesn't really work. You could release the Thanksgiving movie a few weeks earlier than the Christmas movie if you really wanted. But given that most Christmas movies come out within two weeks after Halloween, you'd have to release the Thanksgiving movie sometime in mid-October. And Thanksgiving just isn't on people's radars at that point. Nor can you rely on Thanksgiving weekend itself as a good time for people to see Thanksgiving movies. Once you've hit the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday, Thanksgiving is forgotten, remembered only in the form of the Tums you're popping to quell your indigestion.

But in case you are interested in seeking out a Thanksgiving movie this year, here are my thoughts on and rankings of the five I've seen:

1) Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987, John Hughes). Release date: November 25, 1987. The best Thanksgiving movie isn't even about the social dynamics at a Thanksgiving table, but rather, about the quest to actually get to that table. Perhaps that explains its release date, just one day before Thanksgiving that year. Whenever I catch a few minutes of this wonderful film on TV, it always reminds me fondly of John Candy. This year that fondness will be doubled, as this is our first Thanksgiving without John Hughes. My guess is that it'll be playing around the clock.

2) Pieces of April (2003, Peter Hedges). Release date: October 17, 2003. This indie features Katie Holmes as a flighty hipster trying to cobble together a Thanksgiving meal for her diverse, dysfunctional family. They went with that mid-October release date here, but since it received only a limited release, commercial factors were probably not a huge consideration. It's a flawed film, but has a lot of heart and some nice touches. This is what #5 on this list was probably going for when it failed so massively.

3) Scent of a Woman (1992, Martin Brest). Release date: December 23, 1992. This is the one I forgot had anything to do with Thanksgiving. Turns out, Chris O'Donnell's character is accompanying Al Pacino's blind colonel as a job over Thanksgiving to pay for his Christmas airfare home, and they travel to the colonel's brother's for Thanksgiving, with awkward and comic results. I liked this film fine at the time, but over the years have come to see it as a bit emotionally manipulative. Not to mention that Pacino's character, with his fondness for saying "Hoo-ah!," has become a cartoonish caricature of a cinematic icon. Seems a shame that this should be the only Oscar win for the formerly excellent Pacino.

4) What's Cooking? (2000, Gurinder Chadha). Release date: November 17, 2000. This is the Indian director's multi-cultural take on an American Thanksgiving (what other kind of Thanksgiving is there?), featuring a black family, a Jewish family, a Latino family and an Asian family. It shows the predictable strain of too many characters and too many plot points, plus hits high levels of melodrama at times, but has some nice moments as well. The film wouldn't have been on my radar at all except that it briefly features an actress I was sort of obsessed with at the time, who resembled my most recent ex-girlfriend.

5) Home for the Holidays (1995, Jodie Foster). Release date: November 3, 1995. With the talent that was gathered -- Foster directing, Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr. among the stars -- this should have been a good movie. Then why did I find it to be a train wreck of wacky behavior and dysfunctional cliches? This movie can't be as bad as I remember it being, but I really hated it -- I found it loud, shrill, and consistently unbelievable. Especially surprising given that I figured Foster would have a soft touch, rather than wielding a sledgehammer of tired tropes.

Thanksgiving-themed movies I'm aware of but haven't seen: The Myth of Fingerprints, Four Brothers.

Did I miss any? Let me know.

And have a great Thanksgiving.

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