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Nothing But the Holidays

Nothing But the Holidays

For the Rodriguez family, no matter what they do outside the walls of their Chicago home, their most important function is in relation to each other. It doesn’t matter that the children of Eduardo (Alfred Molina) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña) are grown and gone. As soon as they walk through that front door, they fall right back into their old roles.

Mauricio Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) may be a successful Manhattan lawyer on a partnership track, and his wife Sarah (Debra Messing) may manage a Wall Street hedge fund, but this power couple fears his traditional Puerto Rican mother, who openly advocates for grandchildren and doesn’t hide her disdain for the Jewish daughter-in-law who tries – in her own brittle way – to fit in. By contrast, their parents call struggling actress Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) “our little Hollywood movie star,” not realizing her lack of success. But the most anticipated Christmas visitor is Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), a soldier wounded in Iraq, who is forced to confront past decisions and Eduardo’s expectations that he’ll take over the family-run bodega.

Director Alfredo De Villa (Washington Heights) captures the nuances of these interlocking relationships, which are more complex than they initially appear. Rick Najera and Alison Swan’s formulaic screenplay contains enough holiday movie clichés to fill a fruitcake, but enough spice that the film doesn’t become a bland miracle of the season morality tale. Nothing Like the Holidays is a drama with comic interludes as opposed to an outright comedy like Four Christmases, and what makes it fly are the grounded performances from a great cast who fit together like a loving, combative extended family. This includes scene-stealing Luis Guzmán, who brings his crackerjack comic timing to the role of the bachelor uncle who’s a little too much in everyone’s business.

De Villa stages the big family dinner scene (a Christmas movie staple) as a boisterous reunion, then lights a fire when Anna declares she’s divorcing her newly-secretive husband. With perfect timing, revelations explode like a string of firecrackers until the feast is all but abandoned, a great display of the grand emotions and barely buried secrets that characterize Rodriguez family ties. Making excellent use of snowy locales in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, Nothing Like the Holidays is as calculated as the Christmas season, but still allows genuine emotion to shine through the forced revelry.

Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on December 12, 2008 by Overture Films
First published in the Metro Times.