Friday, December 26, 2008

The Rodriguez family shows us what the holiday is about even if we've seen it before

Poster Art for "Nothing Like the Holidays."

It’s Christmastime and the far-flung members of the Rodriguez family are converging at their parents’ home in Chicago's Humboldt Park to celebrate the season and rejoice in their youngest brother’s safe return from combat overseas. For Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) , coming home has rekindled feelings for an old flame, although she can’t seem to forgive him for leaving. His older sister Roxanna, a struggling actress, has been chasing her Hollywood dreams for years with little to show for it. And much to the dismay of their mother Anna (Elizabeth Peña), eldest brother Mauricio (John Leguizamo) brings home a high-powered executive wife (Debra Messing) who would rather raise capital than a child. In the course of one eventful week, traditions will be celebrated, secrets revealed and major life decisions made. It all begins when Anna announces to her children she is divorcing their father Eduardo (Alfred Molina) he shock waves from this familial upheaval prompt Roxanna, Mauricio and Jesse, each in their own way, to reevaluate the past and rethink the future. But when the Rodriguezes learn that one of their own is facing a true crisis, they instinctively pull together: Old resentments are forgotten, familial bonds are re-affirmed and the healing power of laughter works its magic as the family discovers they are much stronger than they ever realized.

John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez and Vanessa Ferlito in "Nothing Like the Holidays."

The melodramatics in Nothing Like the Holidays won't surprise anyone: The heads of the family (Elizabeth Pena and Alfred Molina) are splitting, one couple (John Leguizamo and Debra Messing) is fighting about parenthood, one son (Freddy Rodriguez) is traumatized by experiences in the military, a daughter (Vanessa Ferlito) has a secret (who doesn't?) and an extended family member (Jay Hernandez) is torn up about a recent tragedy. Luckily, Nothing Like the Holidays is less about that stuff than it is about showcasing the warmth and versatility of its cast. From "I'm divorcing your father" to the impromptu dance party that ends things (as it did in "This Christmas"), the performers never miss a chance to inject surprising behaviors or inventive line readings into their familiar storylines. The result is a dozen likable characters who deserve the happy endings you don't doubt for a moment they'll get. Meanwhile, the biggest gift in "Nothing Like the Holidays" may be the one it gives to Chicago. Dazzlingly lit up and decorated for the holidays, the city is made to look as bright and pretty as a very, very large Christmas tree. The umpteenth holiday-family-gathering film to hit theaters in the past few years, "Nothing Like the Holidays" distinguishes itself from the pack with fine acting. For example, the stock characters of a career-driven, childless couple become decidedly human when played by John Leguizamo and Debra Messing, two intelligent, highly entertaining actors. Leguizamo's open demeanor and joking nature soften his attorney character, Mauricio, and Messing's sincerity wins sympathy for his Bluetooth-addicted, financial whiz wife, Sarah, who is forced to field constant questions from her mother-in-law, Anna (Elizabeth Peña ), about when she and Mauricio will have children. What's nice about Sarah, and what separates her from, say, Sarah Jessica Parker's tightly wound character in "The Family Stone," is that she tries so hard. She learns to cook traditional Puerto Rican dishes, in honor of her husband's heritage, and to greet her mother-in-law in Spanish. But nothing will please Mauricio's mother until Sarah starts reproducing. Though her matriarch role starts out one-note, the talented Peña quickly lends it dimension. Traditional in some ways, Anna will prove a thoroughly modern woman as the film progresses, especially in regard to her husband (Molina, exuding warmth), a well-intentioned man she nonetheless suspects is keeping secrets from her. But Anna also really wants grandchildren. Is that a crime? And she wants her younger son, Jesse (Rodriguez), to be safe from harm. Just back from Iraq, Jesse sports an angry scar near his eye, along with a haunted quality. Rodriguez's nuanced, heart- rending performance elevates just on its own merits. As we see from Rodriguez's wary expression as his character views a banner hung in his honor at his family's Chicago home, Jesse doesn't feel like a hero. He feels lost. But he has not, thankfully, lost his personality, joshing with his brother and struggling-actress sister, Roxanna (Ferlito), and joining them for a night on the town. The interplay between the Rodriguez siblings and their wise-cracking cousin (Luis Guzmán) also provides fun moments. Directed by Alfredo De Villa from a script by Rick Najera and Alison Swan, Nothing Like the Holidays falters on the romantic front. Though Melonie Diaz is appealing as the girl Jesse left behind, the age difference between the actors is striking. She must have been a very young girl when he left her behind. A budding flirtation between Roxanna and Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), an employee at the Rodriguez family's grocery store, never captivates as it should. That's partly because it hinges on a story line involving Hernandez's character that is too clichéd to hold interest. With that said, it all just seems to work and in the end it's quite enjoyable. A hefty 3 on my "Go See" scale.

1 comment:

italkfilm said...

I still have to see this film somehow it slipped away. I was satisfied with Four Christmases for watching a holiday film instead.