Reel Opinions

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Nothing Like the Holidays

I found nothing new in Nothing Like the Holidays, but I did find quite a bit to like. The movie is the latest in a long line of "dysfunctional family coming together for a holiday gathering" comedy/drama that always seems to hit theaters around Christmas. This time, the clan at the center of it all is the Rodriguez family, a Latino Chicago-based family who is coming together for the first time in years to celebrate Christmas. Unfortunately, the family gathering is occurring right around the time that the mother, Anna (Elizabeth Pena) is planning to leave her husband of over 30 years, Edy (Alfred Molina), due to the fact she believes he's having an affair, since he keeps on receiving mysterious and secret phone calls that he only takes in private.

Their children, and the others who drop in on the Rodriguez family home, each have their different take on the impending divorce, and their own stories to tell. Youngest son, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), has just returned home from a service tour in Iraq, and is haunted by the death of a fellow soldier. He also finds himself tortured by the sight of a young woman who lives nearby (Melonie Diaz). They dated for five years, he broke up with her, and now that he sees her with a child and another man, he realizes the mistake he made. Mauricio (John Leguizamo) has become a successful businessman in New York, and is trying to help his Jewish wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), fit in and avoid his mother's constant questioning as to when they're going to have children. Finally, Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) is a struggling actress in Hollywood, waiting to hear from her agent if she got a part in a mid-season replacement TV series, while at the same time striking a budding relationship with family friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), a former street thug who is still burdened by his brother's shooting death and the man who shot him.

Despite the fact it's being billed as a comedy, Nothing Like the Holidays is mainly a drama that contains a surprising amount of honesty in its performances and the characters. These are simple, realistic characters may be driven by somewhat predictable plot arches, but the movie still manages to find truth in them. It does this by avoiding simple or manipulative melodrama. The drama is never too broad, nor does it feel overly scripted. A lot of the film's ability to win me over is how natural the relationships in this movie seems. When everyone's gathered around the dinner table, they really do seem like a family, rather than a bunch of talented actors reciting dialogue. And they are indeed talented. Elizabeth Pena and Alfred Molina find the right balance as the heads of the household. She's a woman who feels like she lost her husband a long time ago and wants to move on, and he never seems to be able to open up and say what he really feels. It's obvious they still care for each other, but she's tired of his secrets.

Also noteworthy is Freddy Rodriguez as Jesse. His family treats him as a war hero upon his return from Iraq, but he can't help but feel remorse. He also feels like he's being pressured by his father to take over the family business, and run the local grocery store that he owns. We eventually come to understand why his father wants so desperately for Jesse to take over, and we also understand Jesse's reasons for wanting to take another tour of war. The scene where the two confront each other is quiet and simple, instead of overblown and bombastic. The movie kept on finding little ways like this to impress me. The story may be nothing new, but it's told in a much more honest way than we'd expect. The father's revelation is also handled in a mature manner, and left open ended. It was nice to see that the filmmakers didn't try to milk it for all the drama it was worth, just enough to be effective. Any more and it would have been overkill.

Nothing Like the Holidays is a quiet little movie that slowly shows its effectiveness. You may know what's going to happen, but everything's done better than the norm here. It knows just what emotional buttons to push, and how hard to push them. I would have been even happier with the movie if it spent a little more time with the characters. Other than the parents and Jesse, we never truly get a sense of them emotionally. Still, I liked what I saw up on the screen enough to recommend it. It doesn't reinvent the genre, but then again, I don't think that was the intention to begin with.

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