Nothing Like the Holidays -- 3 stars

A generic Christmas movie actually worth watching

Directed by Alfredo De Villa. December 2008, USA. Rated PG-13: 98 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 12-15-08)

We all know the story: the kids, all grown up, fly back to Mom and Dad’s house from across the country for a holiday get-together they’ll never forget. Despite the heated confrontations and awkward conversations, everyone learns to resolve his or her conflicts one way or another. Yet, Nothing Like the Holidays—directed by Alfredo De Villa and starring a vibrant cast including Freddy Rodríguez, John Leguizamo, Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Peña, Debra Messing and Vanessa Ferlito—accomplishes the difficult task of producing compelling cinema despite tackling the familiar old form of the Christmas movie. The film substitutes the typical white suburbia depicted in most Christmas movies with a Puerto Rican family in Chicago’s own Humboldt Park neighborhood. With Jesse (Rodríguez) returning from a long tour in Iraq, Mauricio (Leguizamo) flying in from Wall Street with his Jewish wife, Sarah (Messing) and Roxanna (Ferlito) back from chasing fame in Hollywood, there ought to be a lot for Edy and Anna Rodriguez (Molina and Peña) to celebrate. Tensions bubble over, however, when Anna hints not-so-subtly that she wants grandchildren from Sarah and Mauricio, Edy forces the family business on a still-shellshocked Jesse and Roxanna begins to reconsider her career path. Not to mention Anna’s promise to divorce Edy for infidelity—announced out of the blue to everyone at the dinner table—a schism that threatens to rip the very fabric of the family. And that’s just a small sampling of the film’s complex web of conflicts. The actors’ strong performances are a must—otherwise Holidays would crumble under the weight of a busy plot. Instead, De Villa’s picture stings us with overwhelming drama and charms us with the redemption of a family perpetually learning how to be a family.