'Nothing Like the Holidays'? Ho-ho-ho, there's a lot like this new, yet all-too-familiar, chestnut

December 12, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Nothing Like the Holidays is everything like your typical holiday movie: Members of a dysfunctional family get together for Christmas and dysfunction, only to have everything work out just great in the end, as strains of "Joy to the World" fill the air.

Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena play Edy and Anna Rodriguez, heads of a typical Puerto Rican family struggling to make good in their blue-collar Chicago neighborhood. Their children include a returning war vet (Freddy Rodriguez's Jesse) with survivor's guilt, a starving actress (Vanessa Ferlito's Roxanna) pretending she's a success and a successful white-collar type (John Leguizamo's Mauricio), whose high-powered wife (Debra Messing) is more concerned with trading stocks than with making babies.

As if that combustible mix isn't enough to ensure equal measures of holiday triumph and tragedy, the filmmakers throw in a wide assortment of other relatives and hangers-on. There's the reformed gang member nonetheless out for revenge on the guy who gunned-down his brother, a loud-mouth put-down artist whose every breath is supposed to be funny and some former flames whose embers have yet to die down completely.

Is there anyone out there who hasn't seen this movie a dozen times before? Maybe even as recently as last week, since it's basically the same story line as the funnier, if less heartfelt, Four Christmases.

Director Alfredo De Villa clumsily weaves his way in and out of the various plot threads, pausing at each one just long enough to let the audience wonder if this movie will ever get past its cliches. It rarely does.

The cast fails to rise above its material, with one notable exception: Rodriguez is believably heart-rending as an Iraq war vet who wonders just how he's supposed to fit back into this world again. True, the character's no less a cliche than the others, but Rodriguez's emotionally constricted performance gives him a resonance far beyond the rest of the film.

Nothing Like the Holidays also makes the mistake of trying occasionally to turn itself into a full-blown farce, as when the family summons a neighborhood priest to try to pacify everybody. The resulting family meal, with the priest doing nothing but eating, plays like a bad Saturday Night Live skit.

True, what the film lacks in novelty it tries to make up for in heart, and it's refreshing to see the spotlight shining on a Latino family for once. But compare the contrived heart of Nothing Like the Holidays to the genuine heart of a film like last year's This Christmas, which centered on a black family gathering together for the first time in years.

In that movie, the Whitfield family's victories were hard won, its joys genuine and often unexpected. By contrast, the Rodriguez clan seems simply preordained, dictated by a Hollywood formula that desperately needs to be retired.

Nothing Like the Holidays

(Overture Films) Starring Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Debra Messing. Directed by Alfredo De Villa. Rated PG-13 for some sexual dialogue and brief drug references. Time 102 minutes. ** ( 2 STARS)

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