Nothing Like The Holidays Movie Review (3.5 Stars)
Movie Review by Michael Phillips
John Leguizamo & Debra Messing
Are holiday movies the new musicals?
There are a lot of them. We don't believe a minute of them. Yet the key to them is milking real charm from real people reacting in real time.
For instance, before I offer this review of the easygoing Chicago-based Puerto Rican Christmas picture "Nothing Like the Holidays," I should point out that I am a fervent admirer of "The Family Stone."
It has been one week since my last viewing; with Christmas edging closer, I expect to fall off the wagon again, probably late at night.
"The Family Stone," which crams in more concerns than a season of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," has everything: silent looks, walks in the snow, a dying parent, uptight outsiders who feel distant from the clannish family, a clip of "Meet Me in St. Louis," a deaf son, a gay son-in-law and an improbable finish, after which everything's fine. Yet, I don't write that with a wink and nudge -- I love "The Family Stone" so much I watch it in July.
Then again, to spin Tolstoy ever so slightly: All happy families in holiday movies are alike, but all unhappy families in holiday movies, these days, they're pretty much alike too.
"Nothing Like the Holidays," if you are a sentient being on this planet, should strike you, after a short glance at a short TV commercial, as crushingly familiar ("The Family Stonendez"), done before, done last week, done every year, the latest holiday film about a varied, dysfunctional everyday family that comes together at Christmas, lugging a 12-car pileup of anxieties, then tidying up every one, in a warm red bow, within 98 minutes.
A tweak, of course, is required with each new holiday film, to preserve the illusion that you are not buying a new ticket to an old movie. It's not much of a twist, but it's more thoughtful than you would expect.
Director Alfredo De Villa is as interested in the rhythms of these families, and the details of their lovingly worn middle-class homes (painted metal railing on the stairs, decorations on the kitchen sink), as with the cliches he's expected to deliver (and does).
The primary family here is the chaotic, everyone-doing-everything-at-once Rodriguez clan, who haven't spent a holiday together in years: Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is back from Iraq, nursing survivor's guilt and a romance with an old flame (Melonie Diaz); sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) is a struggling actress with modest success in Los Angeles, waiting on The Phone Call From Her Agent That Could Change Her Career; Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) is Jesse's childhood friend, itching to strike at the gang who killed his brother (Ozzy is also smitten with Roxanna, and Roxanna with Ozzy); Alfred Molina plays the mountainous patriarch, unfaithful to his wife (Elizabeth Pena), both of whom hold tight to a grim secret; Luis Guzman drops by as the big, loud family friend.
Oh, yes: John Leguizamo jets in as the rich New York businessman with a rich, white high-powered wife (Debra Messing), whom we know is high-powered because she wears a Bluetooth. Their biggest contribution to the Circus of Complications is they haven't had grandkids -- or as the family calls their inevitable offspring, "Sorta Ricans."
Likewise, "Nothing Like the Holidays" is Sorta Rican, too -- sorta authentic, when it allows this big wonderful cast to talk to each other, catch up, laugh, evade. Those hundreds -- nay, thousands -- of subplots?
Practical ways of throwing actors together, and nothing more; watch the way their faces brighten in conversation, the smiles that spread slowly across their faces in moments of genuine warmth. It's what we need at the holidays, and it's the modest goal of a modest little holiday picture like this -- to capture something heartfelt and real, finding anyone doing anything and meaning it, regardless of how patently false the situation seems.
Sounds like the holidays to me.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some sexual dialogue, and brief drug reference).
Running time: 1:38.
Starring: John Leguizamo (Mauricio); Freddy Rodriguez (Jesse); Debra Messing (Sarah); Alfred Molina (Eddy); Elizabeth Pena (Anna); Vanessa Ferlito (Roxanna); Luis Guzman (Johnny).
Directed by Alfredo De Villa; written by Rick Najera and Alison Swan; photographed by Scott Kevan; edited by Amy Duddleston and John Coniglio; music by Paul Oakenfold; production design by Dan Clancy; produced by Robert Teitel and George Tillman Jr. An Overture Films release.
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