Film Review: Nothing Like the Holidays

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Falling somewhere between a telenovela and a sitcom's big holiday show, "Nothing Like the Holidays" mixes family melodrama with the good cheer of the season, all with a distinct Latin flavor. For the Rodriguez clan hails from Puerto Rico even if Chicago is their longtime home -- and few of the actors actually are Puerto Rican. Every family member brings in his or her own subplot, which plays out Christmas week in the Windy City's Humboldt Park district given over to street carolers, midnight masses and jolly parties.

Like last year's black Christmas comic melodrama "This Christmas," "Holidays" aims for an ethnic audience but plays its hand broadly enough that everyone can join in on the festivities. With such name actors as John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez, Debra Messing and Alfred Molina providing the outreach, this Overture release should enjoy a solid theatrical run followed by substantial video and cable play in subsequent holiday seasons.

Director Alfredo de Villa ("Washington Heights") has demonstrated an affinity to urban life and Latino culture, but here he allows himself a bit of a holiday while remaining firmly in touch with those twin milieus. The situations tend toward contrivance, but the atmosphere is easygoing and the actors seem relaxed even when everyone at the family table is yelling.

For the first time in years, the whole family turns up at the generous, homey domicile of Eduardo (Molina) and Anna Rodriguez (Elizabeth Pena). This includes son Jesse (Rodriguez), just back from a tour of duty in Iraq that left him with an eye wound, and daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), absent three years in pursuit of a Hollywood career.

Jesse must struggle over his still-smoldering flame for Marissa (Melonie Diaz), who has moved on since he left her, and the loss of a buddy for which he feels responsible. Roxanna is torn between the comforts of home and the sudden interest of childhood friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) as well as her so-far futile struggles as an actress.

Older brother Mauricio (Leguizamo) and wife Sarah (Messing) arrive from high-power Manhattan lifestyle with questions over when to start a family driving a wedge between them.

But all these melodramas pale in comparison to the surprise the parents have in store. Mom announces she wants a divorce. Dad's response is strangely diffident, thus betraying -- at least to the audience because no character seems to pick up on it -- that he is hiding something.

No story line in Alison Swan and Rick Najera's screenplay is left dangling by the end of Christmas. Family triumphs, love is affirmed and everyone looks at life anew. Okay, real life doesn't work that way, but it should and does in sentimental holiday movies.

You do sort of wonder though if the Rodriguezes might not invite us all back next year. No doubt everyone again will be in a tizzy.

Production: Side Street Pictures. Cast: Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Pena, Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Debra Messing, Melonie Diaz, Vanessa Ferlito, Luis Guzman, Jay Hernandez.
Director: Alfredo de Villa.
Screenwriters: Alison Swan, Rick Najera. Producers: Robert Teitel, George Tillman Jr.
Executive producers: Reid Brody, Paul Kim, Freddy Rodriguez, Rene M. Rigal.
Director of photography: Scott Kevan.
Production designer: Daniel B. Clancy.
Music: Paul Oakenfold.
Costume designer: Sue Kaufman. Editors: Amy Duddleston, John Coniglio.
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.
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