December 18, 2008

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Nothing Like the Holidays (PG-13)
A Puerto Rican family comes home to Chicago to spend Christmas together in Nothing Like the Holidays, a Latino version of the “home for the holidays” movie genre that I really wanted to like.

“Wanted to like” being the key phrase in that sentence. Last year, This Christmas told a not-identical but similar story about an African-American family. This Christmas went zanier, more wacky sitcom in its comedy and its problems. That might be the way to go with this kind of movie. Nothing Like the Holidays seems itching to be called a dramady — with fewer people-hiding-in-closets and more snappy dialogue (sprinkled with Spanish — authenticity!). But it still feels TV-ish (Lifetime, in this case) and underdone, like a too-soggy Christmas cookie made from store-bought dough.

Edy (Alfred Molina) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña) Rodriguez are the heads of this family. Reuniting for the platanos and rum drinks are Jesse Rodriguez (Freddy Rodriguez), just home from Iraq; Johnny (Luis Guzman), a cousin of some kind who is mostly there for comic relief; Mauricio Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), a successful New York City lawyer, and his Anglo wife Sarah (Debra Messing), who is an annoyance to Anna because of her daughter-in-law-ness but also her reluctance to have children; and Roxanna Rodriguez (Vanessa Ferlito), an aspiring actress in from L.A. Satellites to this family include Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), who has the hots for Roxanna and works in Edy’s market, and Marissa (Melonie Diaz), who used to have the hots for Jesse. The family teases each other in the loud manner familiar to those of us with Latino families (or, really, a big second- and third-generation family from most of your American ethnic sub-groups) until Anna decides to announce that she’s leaving Edy. Then the real “dios mio”-ing starts with the children yelling at their parents and each other about, in no particular order, Edy’s suspected infidelity, Jesse’s having let Marissa go and his war-related angst, Roxanna’s languishing acting career, Mauricio’s general weenieness, Sarah’s career-focused ambitions and Anna’s desire to have a tree in the yard cut down. There are some parties, some fights, some moments of crisis, a scene where Sarah suddenly decides to cut loose and plenty of jokes based on the central joke of “oh, those wacky Hispanics.”

Not, I should say, in the horrible stereotype way. More in the tired cliché way. This movie is full of the kind of watered-down comedy eggnog that fills just about every comedy featuring a family at the holidays. Filling this script must have been a bit like decorating a Christmas tree — tinsel here, marital tension there, some twinkling lights over there, some moments of emotional warmth right there next to the tree-topping angel. I’ve compared this genre to a sitcom but in fairness most sitcoms — heck, most TV shows in general — do a better job of blending sentimentality and humor than this movie. Like forgettable Christmas candy, Nothing Like the Holidays has the holiday wrapping and the basic flavors down but does nothing to make its story or its characters stay with you. C

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some sexual dialogue and brief drug references. Directed by Alfredo De Villa and written by Alison Swan, Rick Najera, Robert Teitel and Rene M. Regal, Nothing Like the Holidays is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Overture Films.