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Nothing Like The Holidays
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A.K.A. "This Navidad"
3 stars

“Nothing Like the Holidays” is another one of those films where the members of an extended family arrive home for Christmas, reveal dark secrets and resentments at the drop of a hat (usually at the most inopportune time imaginable) and resolve those long-buried issues quickly enough so that everyone is happy, cheerful and ready to begin dancing together around the Christmas tree as the end credits begin to roll. Since I come from a smaller family, prefer to keep my dark secrets and resentments bottled up inside and would prefer watching the colorized “It’s a Wonderful Life” over dancing around a Christmas tree as the end credits begin to roll, I have always had trouble relating to such films and, as a result, I have never really developed much of a taste for them over the years. Alas, there is nothing about “Nothing Like the Holidays” that has caused me to rethink my position on this type of filmmaking--it is slow and sappy and filled with dramatic epiphanies that it never quite manages to earn on its own--but I am willing to admit that the efforts of its game and likable cast at least serve to make it slightly more tolerable than most takes on this particular subgenre.

Set in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, the film opens as Edy and Anna Rodriguez (Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena) prepares to celebrate its first Christmas together in years as all of the children return home bearing gifts and grievances aplenty. Youngest son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is back from a tour of duty in Iraq and is troubled by a buddy’s death in combat, his still-burning feelings for the neighborhood girl (Melonie Diaz) that he left behind when he abruptly decided to ship off and his father’s insistence that he take over the family bodega. Middle sibling Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) has been struggling to make it as an actress in Hollywood for the last few years and while her family is convinced that she is a success, she is trying to keep the reality of her situation a secret while awaiting word from her agent about a role in an upcoming TV series. Finally, oldest son Mauricio (John Leguizamo) arrives with his wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), a woman who is a constant disappointment to Anna because she has been selfishly pursuing a career as a high-powered banker to get down to the far more important business of making babies. Oh yeah, there is also childhood friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) who begins a low-key flirtation with Roxanna even as he makes plans to off the local gangbanger who killed his brother and Edy’s nephew Johnny (Luis Guzman), who turns up for no other reason than the fact that any film with so many Hispanics in the cast is legally obligated to somehow include Luis Guzman. Oddly enough, Anna decides that there just isn’t enough turmoil and conflict already and so she decides to drop the bomb at the dinner table that she plans on divorcing Edy after the holidays because of his apparent philandering, a move that naturally upsets all the kids but to which he responds in such a nonchalant manner that anyone (outside of the characters in the movie, of course) can easily suss that there is something else going on with him.

The trouble with “Nothing Like the Holidays” is that the screenplay by Alison Swan and Rick Najera couldn’t be more predictable and boilerplate if it tried. As the story progresses, each and every one of the traumas listed above is brought up and resolved in such a quick, neat and efficient manner that you wonder why they were so troubled by them if they were able to get over them as quickly as they do here. However, the resolutions are so absurdly neat and tidy that even those with a taste for films of this type may find the resolutions to be more than a little contrived--the way that the screenplay settles what is going on between Edy and Anna is especially unforgivable in the way that it subverts reality for cheap sentiment. In between these melodramatic highlights, the screenplay offers us a series of random scenes in which the various members of the extended family are either fighting, reconciling or bonding while trying to tear down an ugly tree in the front yard that must have been planted there by someone who knew that the yard would one day require a crashingly obvious metaphor. I suppose that flaws like these are inherent to this kind of film and some viewers may be willing to forgive them. What disappointed me even more is the way that director Alfredo De Villa fails to capture the distinctive feel of the Humboldt Park community--outside of a nice sequence in which the locals take to the streets to sing Christmas carols, this story could take place anywhere with anybody in the various roles.

Although I can’t recommend “Nothing Like the Holidays” to anyone except those already predisposed to this kind of film, I will grudgingly admit that it is a step above such similar efforts as “The Family Stone” and “This Christmas” and that is almost entirely due to the charms of its cast. I liked how Molina and Pena managed to carve out the occasional moments of true emotion even in the midst of the sappy material that they are forced to deliver. I like the engaging personalities and even-more-engaging smiles deployed by Ferlito and Diaz. And even though his character is pretty much the dictionary definition of “superfluous,” I liked the presence of the always-reliable scene stealer Luis Guzman. Together with the rest of the cast, these actors bounce off of each other with the kind of easy comic energy that makes you wish that they had been brought together in the service of a film that had more going for it than the fact that it is more tolerable than “Four Christmases.”

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17384&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/12/08 16:34:22
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USA
  12-Dec-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 27-Oct-2009

UK
  N/A

Australia
  12-Dec-2008
  DVD: 27-Oct-2009




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