Tuesday, December 24, 2013


I don't have much evidence for this observation, but here goes: an offshoot of the Scrooge trope in Christmas stories (a misanthropic Christmas hater reforms after being shown, in a supernatural fashion, the error of his ways) is the tale of the flawed family man, or exile or outcast, who finds out he's dying and wants to spend his last Christmas mending his ruptured relationships. It may be that this plotline is used more often in stories without the Christmas twist, but at any rate, it feels like a time-honored plot device. It's perhaps most famously used in the TV-movie THE GATHERING, made near the end of the Golden Age of TV-movies. Ed Asner is a successful 50-something businessman who is told a few days before Christmas that he only has a couple of months left to live. He takes the news stoically and reaches out to the wife (Maureen Stapleton) that he left years ago but never divorced. He asks her to initiate a holiday gathering of his four scattered children, most of whom he has alienated, so he can see them all one more time, but he asks her not to tell the kids that he's dying. We see scenes of each of the children debating with their spouses whether or not to go. Two feel particularly damaged by Asner: Lawrence Pressman felt pressured by Asner to follow in his footsteps in the family business—he declined, going off on his own, being belittled by his father when his business faltered; Gregory Harrison, after arguing with his father about the Vietnam war, dodged the draft by heading off to Canada under an assumed name and has barely been heard from since. Asner most wants to make up with Harrison, as he has decided that Harrison was right in doing what he did, but on Christmas Eve, only Harrison doesn't show up.

This is generally a low-key affair which is fairly subtle in pushing emotional buttons. Only one of the kids guesses what's up with Asner so there is no weepy cathartic blowout at the end, though of course, he does manage to reconcile with everyone, even Harrison. The best scene is a happy one, tinged with sadness: after a long midnight talk with during which Pressman realizes that Asner is dying, they open an oddly-shaped present from Asner’s doctor that turns out to be a box of fireworks—together, they set them off in the front yard, laughing and waking up the neighbors (and some dogs). Asner gets to stretch a bit away from his Lou Grant persona; he's still gruff but he's placid and his changes with regard to his children feel real. Stapleton is equally good as the matriarch, though the focus shifts away from her in the last third of the film. The women (including Veronica Hamel) are generally ignored, with Pressman and son-in-law Bruce Davison getting the bulk of the attention. They’re OK, though I wish more had been done with Gregory Harrison’s character—he winds up with only two short scenes. I did get teary at the end, but I felt the movie earned those tears.

Edward Burns made and starred in a virtual, if unofficial, remake of this with THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS, not a film for TV but a small indie which practically went straight to video. Burns is considered an Irish working-class Woody Allen, but as this is the first film of his I've seen I only know him by reputation. Actually, in look and feel, this seemed more like a John Waters movie—except about clean mainstream people. The plot is almost exactly the same as that of THE GATHERING, but the father (Ed Lauter in one of his last roles) is a relatively minor character; this is told from the viewpoints of his children, primarily Burns himself as the oldest son who was forced to become the man of the house when Lauter left years ago. Aside from the youngest child who is fresh out of rehab, most of the kids' problems aren't so much with Dad as with the current state of their own lives. Burns spends most of the movie trying to get his still-bitter mom (Anita Gillette, pictured above left, in the middle on the couch) to agree to see him one more time—she has gone on record as saying that she will never let Lauter in her house again. As in THE GATHERING, the reunion happens though not all the family tensions are neatly wrapped up. Unfortunately, I found most of the characters to be uninteresting. Gillette’s change of heart, which is at the center of the plot, happens disappointingly and anti-climactically offscreen, though she is very good in the role. I also liked Connie Britton in the small part of the caretaker who gets romantically involved with Burns. Ultimately, I think THE GATHERING actually works better. [DVD]

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