Based on a Chris Radant short story, this dramedy about the whys and wherefores of Thanksgiving family reunions is, in the hands of director/producer Jodie Foster (who made the effectively quiet "Little Man Tate"), surprisingly overwrought. As it opens, struggling painter-turned-museum art restorer Claudia (an oddly off-the-mark Holly Hunter) simultaneously receives a budget-cut ax, sexually attacks her now-former boss and has a sneezing fit, and thus the maniacal yet high-brow tone part "Ordinary People," part "Animal House" is set. Woven into the tale of Claudia's ensuing return home for the holiday are her daughter Kitt (Claire Danes), who announces she's soon to lose her virginity; brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), news of whose gay wedding causes consteration for hennish mother Adele (Anne Bancroft) and giddy retiree dad Henry (Charles Durning); a conservative time bomb of a sister (Cynthia Stevenson) and equally inhibited brother-in-law Walter (Steve Guttenberg); mentally shaky Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin); former flame Russell (David Strathairn); and new romantic possibility Leo (Dylan McDermott). The talent is first-rate, but the characterizations provided by scripter W.D. Richter in their lurchingly dramatic presentations never achieve the depth that would give them resonance; when the film closes, its focus on the supposedly poignant Claudia-Leo relationship arrives as though picked from a narrative hat of equally prospective denouements. Nonetheless, any screen that shares the likes of Danes, Downey and Durning at the least promises certain pleasures, and this cast delivers; chance moments, like the cap-fumbling expression of ardor by Strathairn's furnace repairman for Claudia, are written with incisive symbolism yet played with an everyday humanism that makes them all the more real. And much of the humor, despite its Butterball overbaking, delivers hearty laughs. (Although a simple roll of the eyes by a nonspeaking bit player is a far bigger bellybuster than the movie's more supercharged comedy e.g., when Claudia arrives and greets the family cat, it must cough up a hairball. A Polygram/ Paramount co-production being released by the studio moderately wide in early November and then wider at Thanksgiving, "Home for the Holidays" is perfectly timed. Especially given the season's stress, its sheer boisterousness could attract agreeable theatre attendance in a case of the needs of audiences over those of art. Starring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft and Dylan McDermott. Directed by Jodie Foster. Written by W.D. Richter. Produced by Peggy Rajski and Jodie Foster. A Paramount release. Comedy/drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, language and brief drug use. Running time: 102 min.