Right off the bat, Nothing Like the Holidays makes the egregious mistake of floating trussed-up, distracting titles across the opening montage. I have no idea what happened in those first five minutes because I was too busy paying attention to the snowflake animation each cast credit dissolved into.

As for the rest of the movie, there’s not too much to complain about. I just felt I had to get that off my chest.

This ensemble family drama explores a slice of Puerto Rican culture in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, as Christmas looms around the corner. The concept is a Puerto Rican, anti-Royal Tenenbaums. Alfred Molina takes over for Gene Hackman as the estranged father figure, whose cancer diagnosis remains his privileged secret. John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez, and Vanessa Ferlito round out the cast as his grown children leading independent lives.

Taken at face value, it’s a gripping, voyeuristic portrait of a dysfunctional American family during what may be their last Christmas together under one roof. As that, it’s a near-perfect success for director Alfredo De Villa, who has rendered some of the most realistic sibling rivalry since Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

You don’t have to be Puerto Rican to enjoy this film, but it helps. I came to this movie with little to identify with, and was reminded of a similarly alienating “meet the family” situation where all I could do was smile, nod, and be courteous in an environment that was by one stroke hostile and intimate. De Villa’s characters are brutally honest with each other, sometimes brazenly mean, but at their deepest level is unconditional love. At the outset, I felt like an unwelcome intruder, a stranger to the culture. But the more time I spent with this family, the more I felt like a part of it.

The best part about the film is the intimacy of its close-knit cast. The acting is superb all around. A lot of the writing is fresh, and I suspect much of that is boosted by segments lending themselves to pure improvisation. I believed every member of this family, every minute of snarky interaction. Few films can boast as convincing a family as the one on display in Nothing Like the Holidays.

The real shame of the film is that its truly excellent players, capable of some inspired ad-libbing, have to slog through a traditional, sentimental story that at times boasts a promise of edge but never ventures outside the buoys. As I felt drawn in by the characters’ relationships with each other, compelled even, their situations began to seem all too familiar. Few surprises lay in wait on the path to their eventual coming together. Dialogue, characterized by snide banter in the first act, only felt more scripted as the film went along.

The drama is forced, deliberately high-strung, with barely any permanent consequences. We hit the dramatic beats with calculated predictability, and at the end of the day these brothers and sisters still pal around in their underwear exchanging stories about the couch where they lost their virginity, or knock back shots together at the local bar.

The first twenty-five minutes had me expecting a fresh Christmas story with some balls, and it may indeed have some gritty illusions, but Nothing Like the Holidays never aspires to be anything other than a dressed-up Hallmark card.

As a side-note, I also really expected more out of Paul Oakenfold’s soundtrack; I didn’t recognize his flourish at all. Maybe I’m being too harsh but I felt like there were times where the music actually held the film back.

And yet…Nothing Like the Holidays is indeed a Christmas movie, and Christmas movies are supposed to be sentimental, right? I hate to dwell too long on a moot point, and I’m trying not to end on a somber note here. When you start to tally up the film as the sum of its parts, it does more things right than it does wrong.

Despite an easily forgettable title, and a familiar story with few surprises, Nothing Like the Holidays is an edgier Christmas movie with a beating heart; full of life and culture.

Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

Post a Comment