Nothing Like the Holidays (United States, 2008)
There are generally two kinds of Christmas movies: those designed for family audiences and those that should probably have aired on the Hallmark Channel instead of opening in a movie theater. Nothing Like the Holidays belongs in the latter category, but there is a twist: instead of the dysfunctional family at the center of the proceedings being white or black, it's Latino. However, while this may make the film a little more interesting, it proves that the same clichés and stereotypes that infect WASP movies are not respecters of race. Nothing Like the Holidays is made with too much heart and skill to be truly bad, but it's too familiar to be truly good. Like fruitcake, movies like this are ubiquitous at this time of the year but rarely are they devoured with great relish or enthusiasm.
Nothing Like the Holidays tells the time-honored story of what happens when a diverse group of adult children come home for the holidays. The most recent white edition of this movie came out three years ago and was called The Family Stone. This Christmas is the African American variation on the theme. The French version, A Christmas Tale, is currently playing in theaters and, if nothing else, it proves that the French can take half-baked material like this and at least make it seem somewhat artistic and intellectual. Nothing Like the Holidays is made for those who like their drama neatly sliced and easily digestible.
The Rodriguez family hails from Chicago, so that's where they head this December, descending on their childhood home, where Edy (Alfred Molina) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña) are inhabiting an empty nest. All is not well with Mom and Dad, however. He's taking lots of secret phone calls and she's just about fed up. Into this tense atmosphere come the kids. Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is newly returned from Iraq, where a traumatic experience has left him less than the man he used to be. He pines for The One Who Got Away, Marissa (Melonie Diaz), who lives nearby and conveniently drops in for a visit. Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his Jewish wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), are in from New York to face the expected barrage of questions about why there are no little Mauricios and Sarahs. And Roxanna is back from Hollywood, where her quest to become a star rests on her ability to get a part in a mid-season replacement TV series. She's given a perfunctory love story with an ex-gang banger named Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), who's trying to get over the shooting death of his brother.
The characters in Nothing Like the Holidays are sketched rather than drawn, and glanced at rather than given a long, hard stare. They feel like a writer's creations and their dramatic arcs are obvious and only marginally engaging. The ending, while thankfully not threatening sugar shock by giving everyone a happy resolution, feels too neat. Real life, which is what this is trying to mimic on some level, never cleans up like this. But most movie audiences prefer closure, and that's something director Alfredo De Villa has no trouble providing.
For the most part, the filmmakers chose Latino actors to play members of this Puerto Rican family. The obvious exception is Brit Alfred Molina (whose ancestry is half-Spanish/half-Italian), but Molina has a long history of playing Hispanic characters and nothing about Edy is a stretch. The best performance is arguably owned by Freddy Rodriguez as the troubled Jesse. The character's situation is tragic and we feel an element of his pain. John Leguizamo is surprising in that he exhibits uncharacteristic reserve. The normally flamboyant actor is fully reined in and, if not for his unmistakable physical characteristics, one might not recognize him.
The film has its share of semi-humorous scenes, and those sequences represent some of Nothing Like the Holidays' endearing moments. The actors seem more at ease and the dialogue is less forced. The most notable of these is the ongoing struggle between Edy and the big, ugly tree in his front yard. Then there's Luis Guzman, who plays a family friend and whose entire purpose in the movie is to lighten the mood. Of course, since this is a Christmas movie, there are the requisite dinner and caroling scenes, just to make the season bright. Still, as in many movies of this sort, the holiday is merely a handy excuse to get everyone together. Christmas could just as easily be Easter or Thanksgiving or a wedding or a funeral. Choosing Christmas gives Nothing Like the Holidays a marketing hook and, considering how generic the film is, that's something it needs.
Nothing Like the Holidays (United States, 2008)
Cast: Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Peña, Freddy Rodriguez, Luis Guzman, Jay Hernandez, John Leguizamo, Debra Messing, Vanessa Ferlito, Melonie Diaz
Screenplay: Alison Swan and Rick Najera
Cinematography: Scott Kevan
Music: Paul Oakenfold
U.S. Distributor: Overture Films