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Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Less a warm family holiday film and more of a "mi familia loca" soap opera, NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS (2008) takes its time finally gathering up all the strings of its plot and weaving them into a mildly interesting variation of a familiar story, this time involving a Puerto Rican brood in Chicago.

The dysfunctional Rodriguez family contains enough drama for at least a whole season of primetime TV (including a Christmas special). Freddy Rodriguez ("El Wray" of PLANET TERROR) is returning Iraq war vet Jesse, haunted by guilt because he survived an explosion that killed his friend and unwilling to take over the family business as expected. Another GRINDHOUSE alumnus, Vanessa Ferlito (DEATH PROOF), is his actress sister Roxanna who hides the fact that she isn't the big star everyone thinks she is. With his usual manic energy, John Leguizamo plays Mo, the white-collar businessman brother whose Caucasian wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), also a biz whiz, is happy to let her biological clock tick away as her in-laws pray for grandchildren.

Of course, various romantic dramas are explored--Jesse yearns to get back with his ex-girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz), who's involved with someone else, while Roxanna considers getting serious with family friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) but worries about his murderous vendetta against the neighborhood guy (Manny Perez) who killed his brother. All of this, however, takes a back seat to the bombshell that gets dropped on all of their heads during a big family dinner--namely, the sudden announcement by mother Anna (Elizabeth Peña) that she's divorcing their father Edy (Alfred Molina) after 36 years of marriage because she suspects him of cheating on her.

Until that moment, I kept wondering what direction NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS was going to take. It wasn't funny enough to be a comedy, although it does manage to be fairly amusing at times. I like this exchange between father Edy and war veteran son Jesse:

"We know you've been through a lot. Your mother and me, we rented 'Coming Home.'"
"I'm surprised you didn't rent 'Taxi Driver.'"
"Yeah, we rented that, too."

Luis Guzmán certainly does his obnoxious best to comedy things up as nephew Johnny, and it's fun seeing Leguizamo play a more conservative and vaguely nerdy character. The various dramatic elements also aren't all that engaging at first, and need time to percolate before yielding much interest. As a warm and fuzzy family Christmas story, it's barely there. But Mama Rodriguez' divorce decree throws the switch on what makes the rest of it work--now everyone's worried about not only their present concerns, but the fact that this will likely be their last Christmas together as a family.

There's a good running gag about the menfolk trying in vain to cut down a big, gnarly tree in the front yard which refuses to budge, which is probably symbolic of something if you think about it long enough. Rodríguez, Ferlito, and Leguizamo get some nice chemistry going in some of their scenes together. I could do without the pandering "white people" cracks, and it's troubling to see members of the family openly insult Sarah to her face in Spanish or refer to her as "Barbie Doll", especially when she's making an awkward effort to fit in. Her character, however, gains unexpected depth when she later becomes an ally to Edy after he reveals a crucial secret to her.

The film is at its best when Molina and Peña are on the screen. Alfred Molina can convey great warmth, as is evident even in his early scenes in SPIDERMAN 2, and his performance here is the emotional heart of the whole story. Elizabeth Peña, likewise, lends a realism and maturity to her role with seemingly little effort. Among the rest of the cast, the standout for me is Freddy Rodríguez in a sensitive and soulful performance that provides interesting counterpoint to his bombastic hero "El Wray" in PLANET TERROR.

The Anchor Bay DVD is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Surround 5.1 and Spanish mono. English and Spanish subtitles are available. Extras include a commentary with director Alfredo De Villa, producer Robert Teitel, and Freddy Rodríguez, about fifteen minutes of bloopers, a trailer, and a cast reunion featurette (minus Molina and Leguizamo).

As a comedy-drama about the importance of family, friends, and lovers, and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture, NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS comes together in its second half with a pretty satisfying payoff. Not looking for it to become a Christmas tradition, though.

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