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Dustin's Review

Nothing Like the Holidays  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Alfredo De Villa.
Cast: Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Pena, Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Vanessa Ferlito, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Luis Guzman, Melonie Diaz, Alexander Bautista, Ramses Jimenez, Manny Perez, Claudia Michelle Wallace, Manny Sosa.
2008 – 99 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexual dialogue, and brief drug references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 12, 2008.
"Nothing Like the Holidays" was originally titled "Humboldt Park," named after the famous Chicago landmark that Iraq War veteran Jesse Rodriguez (Freddy Rodriguez) sees as a symbol of his home. The original moniker would have been more appropriate, and less suggestive to prospective viewers that what they would be watching is a warm and fuzzy Christmas comedy. "Nothing Like the Holidays" is about a family reuniting for the holidays, certainly, but it's more dramatic than rompish (there are few, if any, funny moments), and lacks the seasonal spirit and musical chestnuts one expects from this kind of film. At least there's snow and ice.

Jesse Rodriguez returns from his five-year tour of duty in Iraq just in time for the week of Christmas. It is good to be home, but he can't help but recognize how things have changed since he went away to fight in a war that has left him with more scars than the ones on his face. The girlfriend he left behind, Marissa (Melonie Diaz), now has a young son and a serious boyfriend. Older brother Mauricio (John Leguizamo), also back in town with wife Sarah (Debra Messing), presses him on his experiences overseas that he's not quite ready to talk about. Sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), a struggling actress in L.A., has also returned to their hometown, hoping to hear about a role in a midseason television series she's up for. Yuletide cheer, however, is about to be in short supply for the Rodriguez clan. On their first night together again as a family, matriarch Anna (Elizabeth Pena) announces that she's divorcing their father, Edy (Alfred Molina). She firmly believes he's having an affair, and he's not exactly quick to deny it.

"Nothing Like the Holidays" plays like "A Christmas Tale"-lite, with a sprinkle of "The Family Stone" and more than a dash of "This Christmas" added to the mix. Its one defining element is the ethnicity of the protagonists—Puerto Ricans proud of their heritage but otherwise portrayed pretty much just like anyone else. Otherwise, things feel awfully familiar and less than inspired. Conflicts arise and are either settled or left hanging, depending on director Alfredo De Villa's and screenwriters Alison Swan's and Rick Najera's moods. The running time comes in at a no-nonsense 99 minutes—"This Christmas," by comparison, felt like it drug on and on for days—but there is also no active rooting interest in most of the thin subplots. The lugubrious tone is serious without being particularly touching, and concludes with little impact (at least in the way intended).

The film does features fine performances and some simple, well-written scenes. Elizabeth Pena (2005's "Transamerica") is too young to be playing the female head of a grown family—by my estimation, she must have conceived eldest son John Leguizamo (2008's "The Happening") when she was two—but the actress is luminous all the same, giving Anna a real grace and strength even when she is not feeling as strong as she lets on. When Anna declares her intentions of leaving Edy after the holidays and the rest of the family angrily disgroups upon hearing the news, Sarah stays seated next to her and continues eating the dinner that Anna has lovingly prepared. For two people who have never truly connected—as a white Jewish gal, Sarah is a far cry from the family she has married into—it's a lovely, subtle moment that tightens their relationship. Most of the characters, in fact, are given their own time to shine, despite playing movie archetypes not quite fleshed out as much as they could. The exception to this would be Jesse. Freddy Rodriguez (2008's "Bottle Shock") is convincing in the role, as a man who is carrying a lot of baggage around with him since coming home from the war. His scenes with Melonie Diaz (2008's "Hamlet 2"), as old flame Marissa, are effective, signifying how time may change things, but memories of what once was remain.

One of the few truly festive sequences in "Nothing Like the Holidays" is the portrayal of the annual parrandas, a Puerto Rican Christmas caroling tradition that brings the Chicago neighborhood together in a parade of celebratory good cheer. A couple indelible visuals amidst otherwise middle-of-the-road photography are also notable, as when Roxanna and family friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) share a nice moment beside the iced-over Chicago River, the city's skyscrapers twinkling in the background. That's authentic production value you cannot just snap your fingers and achieve. More of all this and less bickering and morose ponderings would have been appreciated in a movie that could have afforded a little lightening up. If director Alfredo De Villa's idea of a happy ending is for one character to have a terminal illness, another character to throw away a career that is just beginning to take off, and a third character to sacrifice their future due to a sense of responsibility and guilt, then his vision must be at odds with my own. With the end credits comes a tinge of sadness, and then emptiness.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman