Home for the Holidays is structured round the same festival, Thanksgiving, and tells the story of Chicago-based Claudia (Holly Hunter) visiting her family in Baltimore. Holly Hunter has yet to give a poor performance, and conveys a distinctive mixture of determination and disconnection in her character. Thanksgiving is rendered traumatic in advance by the fact that she has been fired from her job as a picture restorer - and we may share her sense of outrage at the disruption of her career, having sat through the long and careful montage of her at work with which director Jodie Foster starts the film. What was that all about?
About cracks and surfaces, perhaps. Claudia's daughter is staying in Chicago, and as she delivers Mom to the airport announces that she will be shedding her virginity, in a mature and responsible fashion, in a matter of hours. This news intensifies Claudia's tendency to regress when she gets home, to fight battles that had seemed long over.
Perhaps we should be grateful in a season of compulsory sweetness for the sourness of tone that marks the film's first two-thirds, but it seems a formulaic sort of disillusion. Claudia's mother (Anne Bancroft) is a chain-smoking motor-mouth who is both insensitive and irritatingly intuitive about what's going on. Dad (Charles Durning) divides his time between furtively raiding the fridge, playing the organ, and romancing his wife as if they were honeymooners.
Aunt Glady is a flatulent eccentric who confesses her love for her brother- in-law in the middle of the festive meal. It's somehow painful to see Geraldine Chaplin reduced to playing this cartoonish and graceless role. Meanwhile, Claudia's brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr) is getting on everyone's nerves with his practical jokes and a handsome friend who seems to be his new boyfriend - though the family has accepted his longstanding relationship with the absent Jack.
Unusually for its genre, Home for the Holidays (written by WD Richter from a story by Chris Radant) is determinedly gay-friendly. The environment that actually looks welcoming is not the hysterical bustle of Baltimore, nor the high-toned gloom of the house in Chicago where Claudia's daughter is staying, but the Boston interior from which Tommy's lover Jack speaks on the phone.
"How's my real family?" asks Tommy, which might be charming if he wasn't an utter pain in his own right. But then the family mellowing sets in, as inevitable as slush following snow. Claudia's mother stops being crazed, for no reason, and starts to make sense. It turns out, even, that Tommy has come home in response to a desperate appeal from Sis, so that his relentless barracking presence is his nightmare version of being there for her.
The plot benefits from this revelation, since it means that the seasonal hunk Tommy has brought with him is not spoken for and indeed not gay. By the time everything has turned around, and everybody proves to have a fragile remembered moment that redeems all the heartbreak, it's as if the director has measured out exactly the dosage of alkali to cancel out the acid that went before. Home for the Holidays ends up being as neutral as water - but nowhere near as useful.
Jingle All the Way, the Schwarzenegger vehicle for this Christmas, deals with one of the new varieties of anger: not road rage but shopping mall rage, toy shop trauma. A huge Minneapolis workaholic with an Austrian accent is so neglectful of his family that he tells his wife, by pure professional reflex, that she's his No 1 customer. After a previous failure of fatherly love, he promised to buy his son a Turbo Man doll for Christmas. Now it's Christmas Eve, and he's only just remembered the promise.
The screenplay, by Randy Kornfield, is presumably the work of someone who spent hours one December scouring the shops for mutant turtles, or a weird blue hedgehog, or the plastic celebrity Turbo Man most closely resembles, Buzz Lightyear (with a touch of the Power Rangers). Jingle All the Way sets out to parody the commercialisation of childhood, while also fastening a tow-rope securely to the back of Santa's sleigh. Whenever the action flags, director Brian Levant throws in another novelty Yuletide song.
When the hero refers to the elusive toy as a "doll", he is corrected by the crazed postal worker also searching for the toy who is the film's most likeable character, played by a performer called simply Sinbad. Turbo Man isn't a doll. He's an action figure (which, by a strange coincidence, is what it says in the "profession" box of Schwarzenegger's passport).
To make the hero seem loving and functional despite his pathological neglectfulness, the script sets up an apparently admirable father and house husband as his neighbour. Ted (Phil Hartman) buys the presents in good time, puts up the decorations, and is always ready with a flask of egg nog. But he is not just hands-on as a father. He specialises in the seduction of women whose husbands don't seem to care.
Jingle All the Way sets out to recapitulate the big-guy-interacting-with- kids fun of Kindergarten Cop, but inevitably reverts to Schwarzenegger's home genre of action for the finale. Turbo Man puts in a personal appearance at a winter fair, and guess who ends up inside the super-Lycra of heroism? It would be nice to feel that there is irony in a plot resolution whereby a father redeems himself by living up to the moral values of a plastic toy. But No Sale on that. Turbo Man sold out in November, and irony never even reached the shelves.
Jingle All the Way is seasonal, sure, but so is black ice. What kind of loving father is it anyway who for all his incessant "I'm sorry, Chamie" and "I love you, Chamie," never seems to realise that his son's name starts with a J? n
All films reviewed open tomorrow