Directed by Will Slocombe
Written by Will Slocombe
Cast: Alicia Witte, Wilson Bethel, Sonya Walger, Cheryl Hines, Ashton Holmes, Peter Bogdanovich, Amy Ferguson, Victoria Tennant, Nicolas Coster
Just in time for Thanksgiving comes another film about a neurotic family reuniting for the holidays. This film has many saving graces, despite the tired premise, and you can count the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker isn’t in it as one of them. It is, thankfully, populated by a cast of genuine and talented actors, including legendary director Peter Bogdanovich as Poppy, the shuffling, indecisive, over drinking head of the family. If anyone knows how to deliver an ensemble driven black comedy, it’s Bogdanovich. And never mind his grown children – Bogdanovich’s Poppy is the heart and soul of Cold Turkey, hands down.
Cold Turkey is a little like Rachel Getting Married, except it takes place over Thanksgiving instead of a wedding and the crazy sister is less of the main character as she is the harbinger of doom. Like all families, the Turners have their eccentricities, old resentments, and secrets. Their crazy sister Nina (Alicia Witt) hasn’t been home for Thanksgiving in twelve years and is expected for dinner. They spend the first part of the movie talking about her as if she were Godot and trying to convince Poppy to start dinner without her when her tardiness becomes unacceptable. Poppy is indecisive on this point. He is obviously as hungry as everyone else, but fears offending his younger daughter by starting without her. Eventually he is pressured into starting dinner, and that’s when Nina shows up.
While everything seems pleasant enough to start out, there is an obvious underlying tension that continuously builds throughout the movie to a breaking point. Everything is exacerbated by the family members’ hidden secrets – half-brother Jacob (Ashton Holmes) has gambling debts, older sister Lindsay has a secret daughter about which she’s being blackmailed, and Nina’s tenants left without paying rent – and their private meetings with Poppy to request large amounts of money from him. Poppy, of course, has a secret of his own that tears down the boundaries and allows the family to really relate to each other without their own selfish problems and resentments getting in the way. But it takes the entire film of awkward poking and prodding, tiring jabs and low blows like only family can deliver. And while there seems to be some kind of reconciliation among the family members, it is hard won and its arrival somewhat mysterious. There doesn’t seem to be any real, logical agreement reached – just a tired point of acceptance. One wonders if the resentments will resurface – and of course they will, they’re a family – but for now they seem to understand each other.
While everyone in Cold Turkey is not only believable, but genuine and interesting to watch, it is Peter Bogdanovich as Poppy that is the real star. The film starts out with him getting out of bed the morning before Thanksgiving. As he shuffles down the hallway toward the kitchen, he is arrested by sounds of dismay emitting from the rooms in which his children are staying. Each time he backtracks and listens through the door to make sure all is well, and each time he shuffles on. Once he reaches the kitchen, he pours himself a generous glass of white wine topped with an ice cube – a frequent ritual repeated throughout the day – and sits outside to read. As the film goes on he is put upon, indecisive, drunk, and desperate. His sense of ironic resignation about everything is palpable and adds as much to this black comedy as any of the actual storyline.
Bogdanovich is a true marvel in what might otherwise be a slightly tedious movie. As a writer/director himself, he understands certain things about character in relation to the greater story that perhaps are not apparent to regular actors. He also comes from a certain generation of actors, trained by the great Stella Adler who also mentored the likes of Marlon Brando, which are quickly on their way out. By acting style alone, he adds something new, perhaps distinctly generationally different, from the younger actors surrounding him.
In the end, Cold Turkey, by its very nature, is the kind of movie that I don’t tend to enjoy. There’s very little I find enjoyable about family conflict, particularly being subject to someone else’s family conflict. I don’t, however, dispute there’s great merit to the character studies and the exploration of family dynamic, or that the film was extremely well made and tightly written. It is an excellent film about a group of egotistical people who learn to see through each other’s eyes and to put aside their self-interest enough care about each other a little.