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December 16, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | December 16, 2008 |

Mock me if you must, because most of your impressions of Nothing Like the Holidays come exclusively from its lame marketing campaign and the unfortunate casting of Debra Messing, but Nothing Like the Holidays is a much better film than it has any right to be. If you looked at the list of cast members, you’d be hard pressed to imagine Nothing Like the Holidays was anything more than a movie full of Latino stereotypes and broad, demographically friendly jokes. Indeed, on first blush, the movie looks like a Latino version of a Tyler Perry film, the Puerto Rican edition of last year’s First Christmas/The Perfect Holiday or the self-indulgent, upper-middle class The Family Stone of 2005.

But what Nothing Like the Holidays has that those other movies do not is what makes this film a cut above the rest: Alfred Molina’s sad eyes. Molina has been around for over 25 years, in bit parts and in big, in small movies and in large, but why no one has thought yet to revolve an entire film around those warm puppy dogs is beyond me. Even in a light drama that once again preys upon the Christmas family get together, those eyes bleed heartbreak. The man is a giant bear hug waiting to happen.

But beyond that, Nothing Like the Holidays also has this going for it: It’s not cheap. There’s a certain generic quality to it, but at least it tries to earn your affection instead of manipulating it out of you. There are a lot of occasions in the script where a lazier filmmaker would’ve reached for your emotional jugular and ripped it out and showed it to your face while you were drowning in your own tears, but Alfredo De Villa — a mostly unsuccessful indie director (Adrift in Manhattan) — avoids the easy weeps. The result: It’s not going to win any awards or even be remembered next year, but Nothing Like the Holidays is nevertheless a warm, genial, bittersweet Christmas film that at least deserves more respect and box-office dollars than the cheap, gimmicky bullshit the big studios have been slapping our asses with the last few years forever (I’m talking to you, Vince Vaughn).

Nothing Like the Holidays concerns the Rodriguez family, a second-generation Puerto Rican family from Chicago’s Humboldt Park (perhaps unsurprisingly, only two of the principal cast members are of Puerto Rican descent — Freddy Rodriguez and Luis Guzman; Colombian, Spanish, Puerto Rican, Italian … it’s all the same to Hollywood). The youngest son, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is returning from Iraq after a three-year stint; daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), an unsuccessful actress, is arriving from Hollywood; and the eldest, biglaw attorney Mauricio (John Leguizamo), is coming in from NYC with his wife, Sarah (Messing), with no children in tow, much to the chagrin of the family matriarch and cook, Anna (Elizabeth Peña). Edy (Molina) is the patriarch and owner of the family business, a neighborhood bodega, which he plans to run with his son, Freddy, now that he’s back from Iraq. Luis Guzman plays cousin and comic relief, while Jay Hernandez plays former street thug-turned good and potential love interest to daughter, Roxanna.

As you’d expect with one of these family-dinner films, the amount of food is only surpassed by the level of bickering, and the film’s overarching conflict arrives when Anna — who suspects her husband is being unfaithful — announces over dinner that she’s divorcing him after 36 years of marriage. All of this, of course, is the impetus for the other family squabbles that arise, and you have a fairly clear idea of where it’s all eventually heading. What is surprising, however, is that Nothing Like the Holidays is not completely predictable — it seems an awful lot like a cut made before a studio sunk its fangs into it. I suspect, perhaps, that Overture Films simply decided to let the Latinos have their way this time, and the result is a sentimentally bittersweet conclusion that aches as much as warms your cockles.

What really makes the film work, however, is the exceptional cast, led by Molina and Freddy Rodriguez (“Six Feet Under,” Grindhouse). I don’t know how authentic Nothing Like the Holidays is, but the cast makes it feel authentic. It’s a warm and inviting crew, and the kind of actors (Messing excepted) that it’s nice to hang out with for a couple of hours, just sort of basking in their dysfunctional glow. It’s not a great film by any stretch, but it’s not a bad one, either. Not that it’s saying a lot, but if the Christmas movies of the recent past are offered up as benchmarks, then Nothing Like the Holidays is probably the best since … I dunno. I can’t think of a decent Christmas (non-misanthropic) film since 1989. I guess that makes Nothing Like the Holidays a modern motherfucking classic.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives withi his wife and son in Portland, Maine You can reach him via email, or leave a comment below.

Nothing Like the Holidays / Dustin Rowles

Film | December 16, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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