Allow me to quote from my review of "Four Christmases," released only a few weeks ago: "I don't need to spend $8.75 to be told that we should spend time with our loved ones, even if they're completely insane. By now, I think we all know." As much as I believe this to be true, films like "Nothing Like the Holidays" prove that even well established messages can still be effective. This movie is everything "Four Christmases" was not: funny, touching, and intelligent, with drama that actually feels genuine. While it gives us just about everything we've come to expect from the typical holiday movie, it makes the most of what it's got, and I have a feeling that just about everyone will find it relatable to certain degree. It's a family drama that has just the right balance of humor and heart, and it features a number of actors that naturally fit into the material.
"Nothing Like the Holidays" tells the story of the Rodriguez family and the drama that befalls them during the Christmas holiday. The father, Edy (Alfred Molina), is the owner of a Puerto Rican grocery store in the middle of Chicago, and he'd like nothing more than for one of his sons to someday take over the business. Unfortunately, he and his wife, Anna (Elizabeth Peña), are having a great deal of problems. Anna is a very unhappy woman. For one thing, she has reason to believe that Edy is cheating on her, with his constant cell phone calls and late nights out. Furthermore, she would like nothing more than for her son, Mauricio (John Leguizamo), and his wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), to bless her elderly years with a grandchild. When in the same room together, Anna regards Sarah not with scorn, but with a quiet air of disappointment, as if to say she could be doing a much better job.
Sarah and Mauricio are having problems of their own. While they're successful executives in New York City, business opportunities are threatening both their marriage and their prospects for having children, which Sarah may not be ready for right now. It would help if Anna would stop asking for a grandchild. She's trying her hardest to be on friendly terms with Anna, offering to help clean, practicing Spanish, insisting that she's learned a great deal about Puerto Rican cuisine. There's a wonderful moment just after Anna announces at the dinner table that she's divorcing Edy; after everyone leaves in disgust, Sarah remains where she is, calmly asserting that she isn't finished eating. For the first time, Anna gives Sarah a genuinely loving look.
Unfortunately, Mauricio is unwilling to accept his parents' divorce, probably because, as a married man himself, he believes that spouses are supposed to ride the ups and downs of life together. Ultimately, he says, you end up falling in love all over again. What he seems to be forgetting is that his mother suspects his father of cheating, which is unforgivable after over thirty years of marriage.
And then there are the other two children. The younger son, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez, also one of the film's executive producers), is a soldier returning home from the Iraq war. He carries a lot of guilt, not only because he broke up with his girlfriend, Marissa (Melonie Diaz), but also because of an event that went horribly wrong in Iraq. Now back home, Edy is putting pressure on Jesse to take control of the grocery store. But does Jesse want that kind of responsibility? What exactly does he want? Whatever it is, he doesn't believe he'll find it in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago. He certainly won't be getting any support from Mauricio, who has always felt that Jesse had virtually everything handed to him.
The sister, Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), is an actress visiting from Los Angeles. While she has managed a few small roles, she has yet to get her big break. She is being considered for a part in a new television series, but given the fact that her agent calls frequently with little to no news, it's difficult to say what will happen. What she really doesn't understand is why everyone around her thinks she has been living such a glamorous life; they seem to forget that many actors struggle to pay their bills.
Intertwined with all this are a couple of minor subplots, including the Rodriguez's outspoken cousin, Johnny (Luis Guzmán), Marissa's relationship with a new man, and Roxanna's friend, Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), a former gang member who still has some unfinished business. There are also a few interesting scenes with a tree that's been standing on the Rodriguez's front lawn for years. Anna has always wanted it cut down; it doesn't give her a view. Attempts to destroy it only make its metaphor for family all the more obvious--it may by twisted, obstructive, and just plain ugly, but it's also indestructible and deeply rooted. Messages like this are expected in holiday movies, and I can't fool myself into believing that "Nothing Like the Holidays" gives us anything new in the way of family drama. But I also can't deny the fact that the filmmakers made it work. This movie, for all intents and purposes, feels authentic from beginning to end. It's funny at times, yet it never goes for a series of cheap laughs. It's sad at times, yet it doesn't resort to overblown moments of melodrama. It gave me the gift of an enjoyable movie going experience, and I'm sure it will do the same for you.