Dir: Alfredo de Villa. US. 2008. 98 mins.
A celluloid mirror is held up to many December family gatherings in Nothing Like the Holidays, a lively, well-cast dramedy which captures both the exasperation and joy in being cooped up with blood relatives who remain outside of driving distance for the rest of the year. Set amongst a sociable Puerto Rican-American family in Chicago's Humboldt Park area, the film leans on a strong ensemble cast to easily trump its narrative familiarity.
A boisterous, open-hearted affair most reminiscent of Home For The Holidays, this should do solid business with chiefly minority audiences, and certainly has enough of a recognisable and respected ensemble cast to achieve modest crossover success with other demographics. The film's cultural specificity, though, could dent foreign earnings.
With Christmas approaching, the far-flung members of the Rodriguez family converge at their parents' home to celebrate the season and rejoice in the return of wounded Iraq War veteran Jesse (Rodriguez), who arrives with rekindled feelings for an old flame (Diaz). Jesse's older sister Roxanna (Ferlito), an actress, has been chasing Hollywood dreams for years with little to show for it, but is hopeful of good news on a recent big audition. Eldest brother Mauricio (Leguizamo), meanwhile, struggles to bridge the cultural gap between his high-powered executive wife (Messing) and the rest of his family, most particularly his mother Anna (Peña), who doesn't hide her dismay that they haven't yet delivered her a grandchild.
Anna soon shocks her children by announcing that she is divorcing their father Edy (Molina), whom she suspects of having an affair. The shock waves from this upheaval prompt Roxanna, Mauricio and Jesse to each re-evaluate the past and rethink their futures.
Director Alfredo de Villa (Washington Heights) comes from a writing background and this feels suitably authentic: what's endearing about a sibling one moment can become suddenly irritating the next. He achieves this primarily though a lot of jokey, barb-filled crosstalk. The script, by Alison Swan and Rick Najara, tackles Anna's divorce drama in a way that makes it seem little more than a story contrivance, but the all the voluble engagement onscreen is certainly enough to merit a shrug of audience goodwill. The movie's technical credits are solid, helped by a location shoot in Chicago.
And the performances are all forceful and engaging, full of warmth and soul. As Edy's TV salesman nephew, Guzman is quite funny. Leguizamo also gets to showcase a very human side of his comedic persona that isn't on display in some of his more manic roles.
State Street Pictures
George Tillman, Jr.
Alison Swan and Rick Najara