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 V.17 No.50 | December 11 - 17, 2008 

Film Review

Nothing Like the Holidays

Cliché-ridden or tradition-filled? You decide.

Typically, everyone gives up after “On the seventh day of Christmas” and goes back inside for Irish coffee.
Typically, everyone gives up after “On the seventh day of Christmas” and goes back inside for Irish coffee.

Nothing Like the Holidays

Directed by Alfredo De Villa

Cast: Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Peña, John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodríguez

In the region of Catalonia (mostly northeastern Spain, but dipping into parts of France), there is the long-standing Christmas tradition known as El Caganer. Translated politely as “the Pooper,” a caganer is a small ceramic statue of, most often, a small boy squatting down, pants around his ankles, taking a large dump. This defecating icon is hidden amidst a family’s nativity scene, on the mantle or under the Christmas tree. The first Catalonian child to locate the rude statuette crapping next to the Baby Jesus or copping a squat behind the Three Wise Men on Christmas morning gets an extra present.

“Ah, Chicago in Christmas. ... Colder than a mother$#@*er.”
“Ah, Chicago in Christmas. ... Colder than a mother$#@*er.”

I relate this particular nugget of trivia to demonstrate that holiday traditions need not make the slightest damn sense or contain any overt reason for existing in the first place. The only truly necessary element to a tradition is that we repeat it over and over again, year after year, until it becomes habit.

Here in America, we have our own set of holiday customs. Among these time-honored institutions is that of escaping our households, overcrowded with seasonal visitors from the far reaches of our family tree, by going to the theater and watching movies about other families coping with the exact same holiday horrors. Be it Four Christmases, A Christmas Tale, Surviving Christmas, Christmas With the Kranks, This Christmas, The Family Stone, Pieces of April, Home for the Holidays, What’s Cooking?, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or any one of a thousand other such offerings, the ingredients are the same. We’ll need a holiday (Thanksgiving is good, Christmas is ideal). We’ll need a large family (the more dysfunctional, the better). We’ll need a certain amount of ethnicity. (African-American, Hispanic, Italian and Jewish are all acceptable--if the family must be Caucasian, at least make them a colorful Southern clan.) And we’ll need a whole mess of secrets to fight over. (Infidelity is always a fine conversation starter.)

Nothing Like the Holidays has got this shopping list down pat. Our dysfunctional contestants for this edition of “Family Feud” are the those proud Puerto Riqueños, the Rodriquez clan of West Side Chicago. Favorite son Jesse (Freddy Rodríguez of “Six Feet Under”) has just returned from Iraq, wounded and ripe for some PTSD. Naturally, this is the perfect opportunity to reassemble sons and daughters from around the map for some holiday cheer. Older son Mauricio (John Leguizamo) is over in New York with his uptight Jewish wife (Debra Messing) working as a successful stockbroker. Daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito from Grindhouse) is off in Hollywood chasing her dream of becoming a famous actress. Throw in a cousin or two and a few childhood friends (Luis Guzmán among the former, Jay Hernandez among the latter) and the table is set for some festive fireworks.

Not wishing to stray from the recipe, Nothing Like the Holidays gives us lots of scenes around the dinner table, lovely Puerto Rican food laid out in heaps for the camera. Everybody yells and cries and laughs in almost equal measure. Mom complains that no one is delivering her any grandkids. There’s a dance, a few fistfights and some drunken confessions. Each character is entrusted with a major secret to hide at first and then reveal later for maximum melodrama. Mami and Papi (Elizabeth Peña and Alfred Molina) are getting a divorce after 36 years of marriage. Jesse isn’t a big war hero. Roxanna isn’t as successful as people think. Mauricio doesn’t want kids. And so on. By the end, of course, each heavily telegraphed secret is spilled and it’s hugs all around.

Despite its formulaic nature, Nothing Like the Holidays is a likable enough distraction. There’s flavor to spare, what with all the Spanglish-slinging, coquito drinking and aguinaldo singing. (That’s “coconut eggnog” and “Puerto Rican Christmas carol” to you gringos.) The actors are a charismatic bunch. And the dialogue is PG-13 enough to drag grandma along. At worst, it’ll provide 90 minutes in which you don’t have to converse with your own family. You may even emerge thinking, “Gosh, my family is screwed up, but we’re not that bad!”--Which is basically the point of these dysfunctional family holiday films. Who are we to argue with tradition?


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