Your comprehensive guide to the holiday movie releases and all possible awkward family interactions these movies may trigger.
Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of a tell-all book about hedonistic life and high-finance fraud among stock brokers. Your conservative family immediately assumes Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is heroic because he’s wealthy. The film prompts a painful discussion over financial injustice, lasting several hours, in which you’re forced to speak for everyone under a certain tax bracket and your mother winds up crying because you imply that her online jewelry sales will never make her a millionaire. You’ll wish your father goodnight as you step into your childhood bedroom. But your father will only stare at the framed portrait of Reagan hanging on the wall. Maybe he just can’t hear you.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – The second in Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Your older brother, ever the armchair lit major, fondly misremembers the book from his fifth grade studies and insists that the entire narrative is a metaphor for the uselessness of the hippie movement, “because, like, if they had accomplished anything there wouldn’t have been three even longer books.” You’ll balk at the film’s headache-inducing ultra-high-definition presentation in forty-eight frames-per-second, accidentally insulting your father when you forget that he left the plasma-screen TV on its HD factory settings and has come to prefer watching college basketball games without motion blur.
Inside Llewyn Davis – The Coen Brothers’ new Oscar contender concerns a folk-musician antihero and his episodic pursuit of success and some peace of mind. Your younger sister wants to see it because she’s learning the guitar and walks out fourteen minutes in. Your mother wants to see it because the local paper recommended it and walks out seventeen minutes in. Your father wants to see it because he’s a lifelong Bob Dylan fan and crawls out twenty minutes in because of an unrelated kidney stone attack. Despite it being a case of simple bad timing, your extended family nevertheless passive-aggressively blames you for your father’s health issues, saying it was your idea to take him to a movie “so stupid it dang near killed him.”
American Hustle – David O. Russell’s all-star crime drama follows two con men and an FBI agent quietly infiltrating the mafia with stealth and aliases while paradoxically wearing really eye-grabbing 1970s wardrobe and angling for an Oscar in Best Costume Design. Your mother’s boyfriend takes this opportunity to impress you by divulging his many, many stories of doing coke. Most of these come as a surprise to your mother and she half-jokingly suggests he should probably resign from coaching your little brother’s wrestling team. Your brother’s joke— “Is Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘bod’ in 3D?” — doesn’t get any funnier upon repeated attempts.
August: Osage County – The adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prize winning play about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family congregating in the wake of the patriarch’s suicide. You laughingly propose watching it to put the problems of your family in perspective. Your parents are stunned that you perceive them as having problems and begin covertly drinking before noon to numb their disappointment. Your grandmother spits on the ground at the mention of the Tony-winning play, declaring that American theatre is a cover for Bolshevik gangsters and secret gay weddings. Your sister over-pronounces the word “Osage,” making it sound like an Italian fashion designer, in an attempt to sound distinguished. “Oh-SAH-gé.” When you attempt to correct her she reminds you that she’s the one who studied abroad, and how’s that Bachelor of the Arts degree working out for you, anyways?
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – An action-packed prequel in which Tom Clancy’s CIA agent Jack Ryan tries to clear his name, save his wife, and compete with Jason Bourne for popularity. Your stepfather’s high blood pressure takes center stage when he rants about the film’s wholesale theft of ideas from the spy novel he’s been working on since getting laid off from the refinery. Your aunt invites herself along but can’t stay silent during the film, enormously concerned about Keira Knightley’s weight and pretty insulted that the actress won’t return her letters. An intense waterboarding torture sequence reminds your mother to ask if your fiancé has been baptized.
Grudge Match – A drama in which Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone play long-standing boxing rivals who come out of retirement to remind you of other boxing movies that are much, much better. Your mother reveals a surprising and casual racism against Italians. Your father is reminded of his bygone athletic peak and withdraws for the rest of the calendar year.
Your manic-depressive cousin’s been kicked off three couches in the family since Thanksgiving and it’s your parents’ turn to give him refuge. He joins you for the movie, sleeps through half of it, and spends the remaining half growing increasingly hyperactive as the boxing matches rise in stakes. You refuse to spar with him in the multiplex parking lot, so his roundhouse punch to your face comes as an unwelcome surprise. Your parents give you a cold compress of leftover ham for your swollen jaw. Your cousin gets a Tupperware bowl full of sweet potatoes as he walks down the driveway and on to his next couch of many.
47 Ronin – An action-adventure in which Keanu Reeves plays a samurai along with roughly forty-six other actors, battling special effects with martial arts and vice versa. Your parents’ confusion over The Matrix continues years later as they insist this film is a sequel, citing the TV commercials as evidence. Your mother insists that a national discussion on martial arts should take priority over gun control once “You-Know-Who” gets impeached. When your parents refuse to join you, you think this will be the perfect opportunity to connect with some of your younger cousins. Instead, they ask you a series of disconcerting question on topics like sex positions, where to score butterfly knives, and whether or not you’ll buy them beer.
Walking with Dinosaurs 3D – Dinosaurs roam the earth in 3D animation, with celebrity voices. Your mother suggests this movie as an option and you take it as yet another attempt to infantilize you well into adulthood. You balk at this and she plays the “But you used to love dinosaurs” card with a quivering voice. Halfway through the film, your brother goes into a seizure when he tries to wear two 3D glasses at once. Your grandmother’s cataracts are aggravated by the 3D, so she spends most of the movie turned facing the row behind her. Your grandfather, raised during the Depression, attempts to smuggle several stolen 3D glasses out of the theater; when he’s caught and publicly shamed, he loudly insists that he’s “just trying to provide for the family.” In the discussion following the film, you realize with rising horror that your entire bloodline believes Earth is only six thousand years old, fossils are a conspiracy, and dinosaurs still live comfortably in unexplored areas of West Africa.
Anchorman 2 – The sequel to the popular 2004 comedy in which Will Ferrell’s womanizing newscaster meets his match and gets his considerable ego humbled in 1970s San Diego. Your father laughs so forcibly at the politically incorrect humor that it starts to come off as pointed towards specific audience members. The high frequency of swear words makes your born-again sister weep openly in the theater. Your brother quotes the film endlessly throughout the holiday and for the next thirty years. No one can ask him to stop because it’s the only thing that makes him smile after his wife left him for a professional dog walker.
Her – Spike Jonze’s outside-the-box indie romance stars Joaquin Phoenix as a mustachioed bachelor and the voice of Scarlett Johansson as the Siri-esque operating system who reciprocates his love. Your family stares at you blankly as you attempt to explain the film’s premise to them. Your father asks, “So… you don’t ever get to see Scarlett Johansson?” Your cousin, hoping to come off as the “hip” member of your family, agrees to accompany you. On the way to the theater, she ironically gets pulled over for talking on her phone while driving and, in an unexpected turn, winds up blowing a 2.4 on the trooper’s Breathalyzer. You try to explain Her’s premise to the Highway Patrol, and he arrests you too.
A Madea Christmas – Tyler Perry’s latest installment in his franchise about an incorrigible matriarch who touches the lives of friends and family, sometimes with comical use of chainsaws. Every screening is sold out. This frees up two hours to labor through all your old boxes in the attic you’ve been promising to sort and clear out since before you moved away. The close proximity to your parents in a claustrophobic space, when combined with the excavated tokens of regrettably lost loves and ruined friendships, causes you to raise your voice to your family for the first time since you were in diapers. This instance hovers over the rest of the holidays like a guillotine. It comes up in conversation that Madea is Tyler Perry in drag and your parents share a startled look. They feel vaguely betrayed by Mr. Perry’s ruse, but also wonder on a deeper level if you had ulterior motives for telling them that.
Lone Survivor – A dramatic thriller starring Mark Wahlberg as one of four Navy SEALS outnumbered in Afghanistan and struggling to survive. Your entire family agrees over dinner that Osama Bin Laden is still alive and working in Obama’s cabinet under the assumed name Jonathan Greenbaum. When you express doubt that the war on terror was at all effective, your uncle asks you why you never liked him and no one’s quite sure where that comes from.
Your estranged brother returns from a five-year stint with the Navy and you’re not sure how to reconnect with him. When he joins your family to see this movie, you worry that the portrayal of the military will either insult him or trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. Every time he gets up to go to the restroom or refill his popcorn, you picture him breaking down in the lobby and putting ushers into headlocks. You’re annoyed when his opinion of the film is generally positive and seemingly uninformed by any of his time spent in military service. When he calls you out on it, the tension is palpable as you get defensive and insist that the Navy made him paranoid.
Ms. 45 – An art-house repertory re-release of Abel Ferrara’s 1981 rape-revenge film in which a New York City seamstress loses her moral compass and sanity in pursuit of vigilante justice against bad men and, ultimately, all men. You had never heard of this movie but wound up seeing it because you didn’t want to see The Hobbit. Your mother enthusiastically suggested it, mistaking the titular handgun as the age of the main character and assuming the film to be a rom-com about a middle-aged single woman’s pursuit of romance. A freak snowstorm will trap your entire family in the screening. Your father will break the agonizing silence in the car ride home by declaring he went on several business trips to New York in the seventies and insisting it “wasn’t that bad.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Ben Stiller directs, stars in, and profits from an adaptation of a James Thurber short story that cost much less to make in 1939. Your sister is too terrified to see it, convinced it’s a movie about a serial killer. Your parents reject the film’s central tenets of ambition and globetrotting, insisting that Walter Mitty would be a lot happier if he moved back home to spend time with his family while he still can, as they glance at you in the rearview mirror to make sure you’re listening.
Saving Mr. Banks – A Disney release, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, about the behind-the-scenes clashes behind Mary Poppins and the story’s true meaning to its creator. There’s something for everyone, fun for the whole family. If the sight of Mary Poppins suddenly reminds you of traumatic encounters with your nanny, keep it to yourself. Your therapist comes back in January.
Eric Stolze writes ad copy, articles, and screenplays in Los Angeles.