- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Overture Films
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
very year, it seems like the same Christmas movie is released under a different title and with different actors making up the same one-dimensional family of characters. 2007’s “This Christmas” tried to modify that formula by making the family in question African-American, but while the movie may have reached a new audience, it was still like all of the others. The same strategy has been employed with Alfredo De Villa’s predominantly Latin “Nothing Like the Holidays,” but while the story still follows an all-too-familiar premise, the movie succeeds thanks to its talented cast led by screen veterans Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Peña.
It’s the holiday season and the Rodriguez clan is reuniting for their annual celebration. Eldest son Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his Jewish wife Sara (Debra Messing) have taken time from their busy jobs in New York to fly in for the weekend; youngest son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) has just returned home from Iraq with his share of scars (both physical and emotional); and daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) arrives from Hollywood under the pretense that she’s a big star. Joining in the festivities is wacky cousin Johnny (Luis Guzman), family friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), and Jesse’s former flame, Marissa (Melonie Diaz), but when the initial round of greetings are over and the family sits down for dinner, Mama Rodriguez (Peña) announces that she’s getting a divorce from family patriarch Edy (Molina). As it turns out, Edy has been sneaking around taking private phone calls from a mysterious woman, and his wife believes he’s having an affair.
“Nothing Like the Holidays” will probably draw several comparisons to Thomas Bezucha’s “The Family Stone” (and to say any more would be to give too much away), but while there are dramatic moments in the film, Alison Swan and Rick Najera’s script creates more laughter than tears. It's because of this that I found myself thinking more about “Home for the Holidays" than "The Family Stone" while watching the film. Both movies feature pretty serious material, but like "Nothing Like the Holidays," the Jodie Foster-directed film features a family that, no matter how bad things may get, they always come out laughing in the end. There’s one scene in particular, where Edy and the rest of the Rodriguez men attempt to cut down an old tree in the front lawn, that’s very reminiscent of a scene from “Home for the Holidays” – not because they’re similar in content, but tone. It’s at a point in the film where tension between the characters is high, and instead giving each other the silent treatment, they come together as a unit for an unexpectedly funny experience.
Of course, one could argue that every Christmas movie has at least one of these moments (and they’d probably be right), but what makes “Nothing Like the Holidays” stand out from the rest are the exceptional performances from its cast. Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Peña bring some much needed validity to the project, while Freddy Rodriguez transcends the generic soldier character as someone with a little more emotional depth. Not everyone is as lucky – John Leguizamo is surprisingly flat for being the film’s headliner, while Debra Messing is more of an accessory to his character than one of her own – but the rest of the cast is solid, from Jay Hernandez as a former thug trying to turn his life around to Luis Guzman as the comic relief. The characters might not be very original, and the story most certainly isn’t, but while some will peg this holiday comedy as the same film you see every year – only with pasteles instead of ham – “Nothing Like the Holidays” has one thing that many others don’t: a family you’d actually want to spend time with. That's good enough for me, even if it is the same movie in different dressing.