Nothing Like the Holidays (Overture Films, PG-13)

film_christmas_sm.jpgIt must be the Christmas season, that magic period when families both real and celluloid get together to bicker and bond, to rehash old grudges and inflict new wounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The days are getting shorter, the temperatures colder, and public spaces are sprouting red and green decorations. It must be the Christmas season, that magic period when families both real and celluloid get together to bicker and bond, to rehash old grudges and inflict new wounds. And of course to realize how much they really do love one another, and that nothing’s more important than family.

I attribute the annual crop of holiday dramedies to their therapeutic value; seeing the process on screen can be comforting while you’re living the same experience in real life, because you know that in the film version all plot threads will be happily resolved within about two hours.

An interesting new entry in the genre is Nothing Like the Holidays, set in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, Chicago. The plot is as predictable as you would expect from a Christmas movie, but director Alfredo de Villa creates a real feel of time and place (the film was shot on location in Chicago) and offers a window into some aspects of Puerto Rican culture that will be unfamiliar to many Americans.

The story centers on the Christmas reunion of the Rodriguez family, as portrayed by a number of outstanding Hispanic actors (most of whom are not Puerto Rican…but that’s why they call it acting, right?). Anna (Elizabeth Peña) and Edy (Alfred Molina) welcome home daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), sons Jessie (Freddie Rodriguez) and Mauricio (John Leguizamo), and Mauricio’s "American" wife Sarah (Debra Messing); the quotes are included because Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth, but maintain a strong and independent cultural identity. Edy’s nephew Johnny (Luis Guzmán) also drops by, as does Roxanna’s suitor Ozzy (Jay Hernandez).

Jessie has just returned from military service in Iraq, wounded in both mind and body, and still carrying a torch for his old flame Marissa (Melonie Diaz), who has since acquired a child and a new suitor. Roxanna has been trying for three years to make it as an actress in Hollywood, and is on tenterhooks waiting to hear about the results of her latest audition. Mauricio and Sarah are struggling to balance the demands of high-powered careers with family life. Then Anna drops a real bombshell: She’s going to divorce Edy because of his infidelities.

And there’s more to come, including terminal cancer and an old gang score to be settled. At its worst, Nothing Like the Holidays seems to have been generated by the plot-o-matic, and becomes so concerned with ticking off plot points that the humanity of the characters is lost.

But the best scenes, which are concerned more with the ordinary interactions of families and neighbors than with pushing the plot forward, feel as natural as real life. Director de Vila also captures the feel of communal celebration that will be familiar to anyone who’s lived in a Hispanic neighborhood. One of the film’s best segments portrays a Paranda, a Christmas custom common to many Latin cultures in which friends and relatives carol door-to-door and turn the neighborhood into a collective party. | Sarah Boslaugh

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