Anchor Bay // 2008 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // October 27th, 2009
They're just a typical American family. Minus the typical.
Christmas in the Rodriguez household, and Edy (Alfred Molina, Frida) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña, Lone Star) welcome the return of their three, far-flung children.
Successful Mauricio (John Leguizamo, Righteous Kill) arrives with his icy, workaholic Jewish wife, Sarah (Debra Messing, The Starter Wife), who's trying to fit in with this earthy Puerto Rican family but can't past the disapproval of her mother-in-law. Daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito, Madea Goes to Jail) flies in from Hollywood, where -- her family believes -- she's a star. But the big arrival is youngest son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez, Planet Terror), who's just finished his tour of duty in Iraq and, like virtually every movie vet, returns both physically and mentally scarred. Over the course of several days, the Rodriguezes -- and their extended family members -- will consume a battleship's worth of arroz and plantains, face more crises than Job, have more revelations than Nostradamus, and learn what anyone who's ever seen a feel-good family Christmas movie already knows: that the bonds of family are as strong as the metaphorical old tree that stands outside the Rodriguez family home.
The hook of Nothing Like the Holidays is that it showcases a Puerto Rican family; thus, the soundtrack features an infectious, up-tempo Latin beat, there's lots of no-need-to-translate Spanish phrases peppering the dialogue ("Mi amor" and "Dios" uttered frequently), and Edy owns a bodega rather than, say, a hardware store or a building and loan company. Unfortunately, beyond these trappings, Nothing Like the Holidays offers the same mix of predictable personal problems and obvious solutions as any holiday-themed movie.
Make that any 10 holiday-themed movies. Every Rodriguez -- and anyone foolish enough to visit and partake of a meal -- is beset by woes. The short list includes two -- yes, two -- rocky marriages, two -- yes, two -- shoulda-treated-you-better ex-relationships, a seething pile of vengeance for a street killing, survivor guilt, the old to-impregnate or not-to-impregnate conundrum, cultural clashes, career problems (for pretty much everyone who's employable), and that old standby, cancer. And that really is the short list -- there is another boatload of mini-crises just to tide you over until the next big one hits. That these plot points all crop up within the first third of the film means that we get a new crisis about every three minutes.
The characters are so stock, and the direction by Alfredo De Villa and script by Alison Swan and Rick Najera so workmanlike, you know exactly what's coming from the second you meet these people. Messing, for instance, is introduced at the Bodega, looking uncomfortable amidst the raucous, colorful characters, a Bluetooth seemingly glued to her head and hair pulled back so tightly that her eyelids would fall off if she tried to blink. The affectionate Puerto Rican neighborhood is conveyed by having Molina drive to work amidst shots of extras standing in front of Puerto Rican flags waving giddily at the camera the way the extras did at the end of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte when Bette Davis was being carted off to the nuthouse.
It just seems that everyone tried too hard to hit this one out of the park, and it's a shame. The cast is game, and there's a labor-of-love feel about the whole thing, but by larding the script with an overstuffed stocking of soap opera clichés and awkward expository speeches, the characters just come off as stick figures with no purpose other than to initiate or end some traumatic contrivance. These people could be any nationality; cultural identity is presented through such stock devices as caliente music for cell phone ringtones and a car horn that honks out "La Cucaracha."
While they're a couple of decades too young to be Leguizamo's parents, Molina and Peña do very nicely as Edy and Anna, grounding their portrayals and giving the most natural performances in the film. Freddy Rodriguez plays his emotionally conflicted soldier well. Messing has the thankless role of outsider/bitch/voice of reason, and she does as well as can be expected.
The disc looks and sounds fine -- it's a 2008 film, and it's being released by Anchor Bay, so there's no reason to expect a poor technical presentation. Extras include a commentary with the director, the producer, and actor Freddy Rodriguez, who also produced. There's a "cast reunion" featurette, an ungainly 15 minutes of bloopers, and a trailer.
Big holidays that feature family gatherings tend to generate their own, real drama. Why filmmakers feel the need to front-load holiday movies with such overly dramatic and ultimately manufactured situations is beyond me.
Guilty of over cooking.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13