Nothing Like the Holidays

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Making Spirits Bright
By Leah Churner

Nothing Like the Holidays
Dir. Alfredo De Villa, U.S., Overture Films

Each Advent, the moviegoer inevitably finds two holiday-anxiety genres under the tree: the child’s, in which an external force imperils a family, a group of orphans or a town and threatens to “stop Christmas,” and the adult’s, in which the threat to the sanctity of Christmas is the nuclear family itself. Nothing Like the Holidays is such a plumb and serviceable exemplar of the latter that it calls for an official, extended definition of the Adult Christmas film genre: a nougat-centered, romantic dramedy about dysfunctional relationships featuring a handsome and familiar-from-television ensemble cast, with the added value of a voyeuristic home tour, in which the activities, foodstuffs, and décor of someone else’s holiday ceremony are as much the object of emotional salivation as the soap opera plot.

Although the concerns of the Adult Christmas picture correlate generally with those of Good Housekeeping (espousing better husband-wife communication and ergonomic egg-beaters), these are not “chick flicks.” Grown families are expected to attend these movies together at the tail of December, and the plots are skewed equally toward the sexes, saluting teenagers, AARP members, and everyone in between. The use of the generic “holiday” in the title is a genuflection that tactfully eliminates the Baby Jesus from the equation, leveling the field for practicing and non-practicing Christians as well as those of other faiths; and yet, the holiday in question is no generic familial celebration. It is, nine times out of ten, specifically and spectacularly Christmas.

More importantly, these movies aren’t intended to sell ideology or merchandise or memories—their usefulness is in helping people survive the season by filling a few of those molasses-paced hours of family time. There is an implicit understanding between producer and consumer that few people would go to these movies if a fifth game of Scrabble weren’t their only other option. In the vortex of holiday, we ritualize those things we’d normally avoid: overeating, donning our ugliest apparel, and then, in a bloated stupor, piling into a car full of extended relatives, next stop: Cinemark. It’s the best way to put in quality time without speaking and a welcome break from sitting in the house. (At least I can speak for my own kin when I call this Baileys-and-coffee-fueled escape to the multiplex an essential Christmas tradition.)

Nothing Like the Holidays has all the standard trimmings—snow on the ground, pillow fights, jokes about re-gifting, mom-in-law tension, precarious yard work, warm lighting, and crane shots of lavishly decorated streets. It’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-kitchen-sink-drama, with a storyline overflowing with nearly every conceivable tribulation for a second-generation immigrant family in a working-class neighborhood. Gentrification, gun violence, the war in Iraq, inadequate healthcare, divorce, and the pressure on the successful children working in Hollywood and on Wall Street, are delicately explored and counterbalanced with comic relief by the wisecracking, maraca-shaking Luiz Guzmán.

The film is set in Chicago’s Humbolt Park, a predominantly Puertro Rican neighborhood, where the Rodriguez family assembles for a Christmas for the first time in three years, to celebrate the return from Iraq of youngest son Jesse (played by a convincingly youthful Freddy Rodriguez, the mortician on Six Feet Under). By the end of their first day together, much of the shit has hit the fan. Jesse frustrates his father by failing to show interest in the family business, and Jesse’s sister Roxana (Vanessa Ferlito) lies about having steady work as an actress in Los Angeles. The mother, Ana (Elizabeth Peña, unexpectedly resplendent in this role, with a voice like tamarind), inflames a sensitive subject in the relationship of her older son Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), by complaining about not having any grandchildren. (Mauricio is a New York lawyer and Sarah an anachronistically high-powered hedge-fund broker.) Halfway through dinner, Ana announces that she’s decided to leave her husband Edy (Alfred Molina) on grounds of adultery. With the parental marriage on the skids, and Jesse and Edy acting troublingly aloof, the Rodriguezes set to work, as families do, knitting complex triangles of allegiance and conflict. Guzmán’s vague uncle-or-cousin character Johnny is the only role not painstakingly developed. This is unfortunate both for him and John Leguizamo; since Guzman is appointed zing-master, Leguizamo is prevented from playing the always-erupting volcano. Though Leguizamo fulfills the “dorky dancing” segment required of all comedies produced after 2000, performing The Worm, The Robot, and other laff-track standards, there is little room for him to do anything but play against type amidst all this clamor.

In the more heavily slapstick Yuletide films, it’s the men, the Tim Allens and the Chevy Chases, who are required to evolve by learning the True Meaning of Christmas. But this does not hold true for Nothing Like the Holidays. Ana throws the first punch and lands it, while Edy neither defends himself nor reciprocates—he continues to sleeve an ace that will prove more detrimental later. While it seems unfair that the women of this family are predominantly responsible for changing their plans and adjusting to the needs of their significant others, I think the message is not quite that simple. With all the sophisticated artillery on display here—passive-aggression, guilt-wielding, and self-righteous manipulation—both genders seem equally evolved in their ability to wage cold wars. But it’s not a consistently grim picture. Mauricio and Sarah aren’t doomed, just neurotic—they’re able to resolve their problems with a bottle of tequila.

There may be thousands of movies similar to Nothing Like the Holidays, but it’s not so dismal as its title would suggest, and in fact may be one of the best December comedies to come out in years. In a few weeks, the suburban shopping center–opolis of Christmases past will inevitably be sounding its siren call. This feisty feature is one of two egg-nog blockbusters now playing, and it sure beats getting poked in the eyes by Reese Witherspoon’s stick-arms, or scrutinizing that slab of turkey known as Vince Vaughn’s face.