For members of the Rodriguez family, no matter what they do beyond the walls of their home in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, their most important function is in relation to each other. It does not matter that the children of Eduardo (Alfred Molina) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña) are grown and gone. As soon as they walk through that front door, they fall right back into their old roles.
Mauricio Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) may be a successful Manhattan lawyer on a partnership track, and his wife Sarah (Debra Messing) may be managing a Wall Street hedge fund, but this power couple fears his traditional Puerto Rican mother Anna, who openly advocates for grandchildren, and doesn't hide her disdain for the Jewish daughter-in-law who tries, in her own brittle way, to fit in.
By contrast, their parents call struggling actress Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) "our little Hollywood movie star," not realizing her lack of success. But the most anticipated Christmas visitor is Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), a soldier wounded in Iraq. For Jesse, being home means confronting past decisions and dealing with Eduardo's expectations that he'll take over the family-run bodega.
The strength of director Alfredo De Villa (Washington Heights) is in capturing the nuances of these interlocking relationships, which are more complex than they initially appear. Rick Najera and Alison Swan's formulaic screenplay contains enough holiday movie clichés to fill a fruitcake, but enough spice that the film doesn't become a bland miracle of the season morality tale.
Nothing Like the Holidays is a drama with comic interludes as opposed to an outright comedy like Four Christmases, and what makes it fly are the grounded performances from a great cast that fits together like a loving, combative extended family, including scene-stealing Luis Guzmán, who brings his crackerjack comic timing to the role of the bachelor uncle who's a little too much in everyone else's business.
Director De Villa stages the big family dinner scene — a staple of these movies — as a boisterous reunion, then lights a fire when Anna declares she's divorcing her newly secretive husband. With perfect timing, revelations explode like a string of firecrackers until the feast is all but abandoned, a great display of the grand emotions and barely buried secrets that characterize the Rodriguez family ties.
Making excellent use of the snowy Chicago locales, Nothing Like the Holidays is as calculated as the Christmas season, yet something genuine manages to shine through.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.