Nothing Like the Holidays

I went into “Nothing like the Holidays” a little bit wary after having seen director Alfredo de Villa’s previous two films, “Yellow” and “Adrift in Manhattan”. The former is a lightweight, uninvolving story about following your dreams and the latter, even with the optimism at the end, is a largely downbeat and off-putting affair. From all evidence, though, the holiday theme had a wonderfully inspiring effect on de Villa, who here delivers a tremendously enjoyable mix of comedy and drama, a multi-strand story with a strong sense of family and its heart in the right place.

It’s Christmas time in Humboldt Park, a northwest Chicago neighbourhood with a
strong Puerto Rican flavour, and the Rodriguez clan is gathering at the family household. There’s Mom and Dad Anna and Edy (Elizabeth Pena and Alfred Molina), three siblings, Roxanna, Mauricio and Jesse (Vanessa Ferlito, John Leguizamo and Freddy Rodriguez), Maurizio’s wife Sarah (Debra Messing) and loud cousin Johnny (Luis Guzman). Also important to the ensemble dynamic are Ozzie, a friend of the family (Jay Hernandez), as well as an old love of Jesse named Marissa (Melonie Diaz).

De Villa does a great job of addressing some serious issues in a mature way, guiding along a sharp, authentic script from Rick Najera, Robert Teitel, Rene Rigal and Alison Swan. The dialogue is always believable and only Guzman approaches mild exaggeration, but he’s a riot. Jesse, who has just returned from a long tour of duty in Iraq, has scars from the battlefield weighing heavily on his mind. This never feels exploitative or fake – Jesse appears a wounded soul, but he has his head on straight. Life has thrown him some hard blows, but by the end he walks with confidence, his head up high and his shoulders straight, and Rodriguez makes him into a real, relatable individual. His interactions with Marissa (Diaz herself is great in a smallish role) really feel derived from shared experience and a bittersweet sense of, well, that’s the way the cookie crumbled and this is Marissa now, this is her life and she’s happy in it.

Manhattan lawyer Maurizio, Jesse and Roxanna, a struggling actress in L.A., act and talk like real siblings, and the whole movie has a strong sense of family and community pride, starting with the bodega owned by Edy. The film takes a serious turn rather early with a sudden dining table announcement from Anna that she’s going to divorce their father, but it’s easy to see things are not really what they seem to be. Ozzie has an unresolved issue from a troubled past while Roxanna and Sarah, especially, hear it from Anna about her disappointment in not being a grandmother yet. All of these matters are dealt with in a believable way, because these characters feel genuine, and they’re all given the chance to say what they’re about and what they want out of life – for Sarah, for example, yes, that includes children, but that lucrative job offer is also quite important.

Amidst all that, there are some good laughs to be had, notably from Johnny but also from a pillow fight, and the whole bit with the chainsaw and the tree in front of the house is comic gold, seamlessly thrown in. There’s a bit of everything in “Nothing like the Holidays” – drama, comedy, romance, poignancy in how the family comes together at the end – and it’s a huge compliment to de Villa and the performers that nobody and no issue is given short shrift. This is an observant, heart-warming film that can proudly take its place with “The Family Stone” as one of the superior holiday-themed ensemble pictures of recent times.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay