The first sign of trouble in Will Slocombe’s Cold Turkey (beyond the terrible title, that is) is when it takes seven minutes for the opening credits of an 82-minute film to end. There just isn’t much to the film: not much plot, not much memorable dialogue, and scarcely any visual style. What Slocombe does have is one hell of a cast, with Peter Bogdanovich playing formerly respected, now-drunken political-science professor James “Poppy” Turner; Cheryl Hines as his second wife, Deborah; Sonya Walger and Alicia Witt playing his combative daughters, Lindsay and Nina (from his first marriage); and Ashton Holmes as his cash-strapped son Jacob. The siblings gather for the Thanksgiving weekend with their spouses, partners, and kids, and spend three days making each other uncomfortable, while occasionally having passive-aggressive conversations about past mistakes. Cold Turkey is well-acted, and at times even well-observed, but about 20 minutes of the material actually matters, and the rest is mere putter.
The best thing Cold Turkey has going for it is Slocombe’s understanding of his characters. The film is sprinkled with sharp details. Poppy pontificates about global and local politics, but can’t admit to himself or his family that he pissed his career away when he consulted with the Bush administration on the Iraq War. Deborah steps gingerly around her stepdaughters, who’ve never forgiven her for breaking up their home when she and Poppy had an affair. Because of his mom, Jacob doesn’t feel accepted by his half-sisters, so he practically begs for their approval. And then there’s Nina, the drama queen of the family, who never misses a chance to let everybody know how brilliant she is, or to boast of how she turned her back on the life of the public intellectual in order to be a free spirit—and a freeloader. Everyone in the house over Thanksgiving slips little digs into their interactions, but Nina’s needles are the sharpest. (Watching Jacob’s fiancée knit, Nina asks, “Is that post-hipster knitting, or pre-feminist-second-wave knitting?” And that’s when she’s trying to be nice.)
But that’s all there really is to Cold Turkey: insults and recriminations, passed around by deeply damaged people who, with the exception of the self-absorbed Poppy, blame each other for all their problems. This is another one of those indie dramas where a group of people gather and spend an hour or so sharing their backstories with the audience, while a generically plunky soundtrack plays incessantly behind them. The characters start out pissy, and then then their pissiness intensifies—and that’s the whole story arc, save for a few scenes where the kids separately corner Poppy and ask to borrow money, for reasons that ultimately amount to more backstory-dumping. The film then ends with another long, wordless sequence, just like the one over those interminable opening credits, showing what’s become of the characters since that testy Thanksgiving. In between: nothing, really. Not even a run to the store for a can of cranberry sauce.