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Let's face it-- to quote Luis Guzman in Nothing Like the Holidays, classically speaking, holiday movies (most notably Christmas ones) are usually considered "white people s***."
Despite the flood of individuals from around the globe who ventured to the new world either when the Pilgrims crossed via the Mayflower or those whose ancestors braved the crowds of Ellis Island, our diversity as a country is seldom celebrated on film. Although Gurinder Chadha proved that dysfunction can be translated into any language with her underrated Thanksgiving film What's Cooking?, more often than not our holiday movies concern the plights of yuppie WASPS or granola hippies clashing over years of resentment or unrequited love such as evidenced in The Family Stone.
While on the surface, the obvious affection that director Alfredo De Villa (Washington Heights, Adrift in Manhattan) has for his Chicago based tale of a largely Puerto Rican family seems incredibly unique and fresh-- after a good fifteen minutes, it moves directly into Family Stone territory. And the similarity between the films is reaffirmed complete with echoing plot points. Yet Holidays is far more watchable as it provides much more warmth and humor to chill the icier edges of the former mean-spirited comedy.
However, along with the humor and obligatory "let's drink and talk" siblings hang out moments, dance parties, pillow fights, punches, cooking, and major revelations, it adds enough tension and subplots that I'm sure the screenwriters ran out of index cards within minutes... although hopefully they went green and used Final Draft in this process to avoid killing enough trees to fill Wrigley Field.
True to the paradigm, the grown offspring of Anna (Elizabeth Pena) and Edy (Alfred Molina) Rodriguez return home from the holidays one by one. The major and most compelling plot-line that ultimately separates Holidays from other films of its genres concerns the timely addition of a battle scarred Iraqi war veteran Jesse (the terrific Freddy Rodriguez) as he bids farewell to his friends and returns to his boisterous uncle Louis Guzman and best friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) to play baseball in the snow before venturing home. It's a unique moment that makes the film feel much more immediate however the crowded plot follows the two other adult siblings as well.
Although she feigns a life of glamor as a Hollywood movie star, with just one look at the beautiful, Tinsletown battle-scarred Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) getting out of an airport shuttle van we realize that she's going to be doing her fair share of pretending everything is all right as well. In the obligatory sitcom-like (and extremely Family Stone inspired) drama of the third adult returning to the nest, John Leguizamo dons a posh Wall Street styled wardrobe. As the much-needed yuppie, he journeys to Chicago with his uptight, humorless, white Jewish wife Sarah (Debra Messing) where they barely set three feet inside the door before his mother is demanding to know why they haven't given her any grandchildren.
As soon as we see Sarah struggling to adapt to forced hugs with her tight hair pulled back clothing all buttoned and zipped up to her chin and her Bluetooth earpiece and microphone attached to her ear, we realize that she's going to be the odd one out. But instead of giving Messing the misfortune of putting her through the motions of a really bad Meet the Parents gauntlet of stress, Anna takes the pressure of by announcing around the dinner table in the form of a blunt toast that she wants to divorce her husband of more than thirty years.
Convinced that her husband Edy-- the local bodega owning Don Juan-- and his legendary eye have done more than simply wandered recently, the siblings all adapt to the news in various ways, choosing sides, until they realize that their reaction to the news echoes some of the own attitudes they have about their current situations.
Bolstered by a terrific ensemble cast-- especially as far as Rodriguez and Hernandez are concerned, although the latter actor's storyline was never fully fleshed out enough to really justify the drama involved-- Nothing Like the Holidays begins to feel a bit like an old Christmas fruit cake as it wears on. However, despite its recycled plotlines and easy to predict confrontations, the film's heart is true and it's a refreshingly sincere and earnest addition to the genre.
This is especially obvious when the movie is contrasted with the cynical yet entertaining comedy Four Christmases, which had fun going for laughs by adding the actors to Santa's naughty list via UFC smackdowns with Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon hurling children around as though she were auditioning for Mickey Rourke's part in The Wrestler. Instead of broad humor, De Villa's Holidays aims for the heart. And while it may not provide as many genuine chuckles, Holidays promises that the nourishment value is up by ensuring you'll be served a balanced diet of holiday movies to help make your own family dysfunction much easier to bear by comparison.