Peter Bogdanovich’s image has become so inextricably tied to his seemingly never-ending plethora of classy ascots that seeing him appear without one, even in a film, is as disturbing as discovering someone no longer has an arm. In Will Slocombe’s Cold Turkey, he stars as the emotionally distant and long-suffering Poppy, whose three financially strapped children descend upon his Pasadena home for Thanksgiving, and the filmmaker-actor’s sluggish, blank-faced performance is such that one half expects him to fall into a nap at any point mid-scene. This creates a distancing effect that does at least partially establish Poppy as a figure at odds with the rest of his family. But it’s Slocombe’s mistake to place Bogdanovich at the center of the story, for this is a work desperately in need of a thriving emotional core in which to ground and make sense of the messy relationships and histories of Poppy’s family.
The intermittent indulgence of long shots notwithstanding, Slocombe’s aesthetic is unremarkable. The action is limited to the house and the surrounding neighborhood streets, but even given that, the film exudes a strange non-specificity of space; this is a home in dire need of character and unique sense of lived-in-ness. While featuring much screaming, accusations, collision of agendas, and the exhuming of dirty secrets, Cold Turkey remains emotionally tone deaf. One particularly egregious scene involving Lindsay, Poppy’s eldest daughter (Sonya Walger), is emblematic of Slocombe’s tendency to rely on dialogue in favor of having the drama well up from the actors or mise-en-scène. Lindsay goes to Poppy saying that she can’t turn to her husband, TJ (Ross Partridge), for help because their relationship is at an extremely precarious moment. But this is a befuddling admission, considering that in all of the preceding scenes featuring the couple there hasn’t been even half a wary glance or the smallest suggestion of suppressed feelings to signify that their relationship is anything but perfect.
Cold Turkey does have a few scenes which elicit a wan smile—usually whenever Cheryl Hines is on screen and locking horns with one of her two stepdaughters. And there’s a nice little running joke about Poppy being ousted as a professor at Stanford due to his conservative politics and dubious involvement in the Iraq War, with Bogdanovich delivering his lines on the topic with a glimmer of irony. But the film certainly won’t be entering the canon of dysfunctional family holiday films alongside the likes of Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, falling far short of effectively exploring the knotty terrain of familial discord and the total evisceration of character those two works achieve.