Friday, December 12, 2008

Nothing Like the Holidays

When reading reviews, be they for movies, games, books, or music, I have always felt that it is important to know a reviewers biases. In the interest of full disclosure, I shall now tell you that I am no fan of the holidays, in fact my holiday spirit comes in a bottle. Lucky for me that “Nothing Like the Holidays” isn't really a holiday film.

The Rodriguez family seems to be the living the American dream. Edy (Alfred Molina; “The Da Vinci Code”, “Spider-Man 2”) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña) have been married for thirty-six years, and for the first time in ages this bodega owner and his wife are going to have all of their kids under one roof again for the holidays, and if they can just put aside the growing animosity between them the holidays will go great.

The children also all seem to be living great lives. Jesse (Freddy Rodrigues; “Six Feet Under”, “Planet Terror”), a soldier just home from Iraq who is all set to take over the bodega from his father. Mauricio (John Leguizamo; “The Happening”, “Super Mario Brothers”) and his wife Sarah (Debra Messing; “Will & Grace”, “The Starter Wife”) are the successful New York couple who are both going places in their careers. Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito; “CSI:NY”, “Deathproof”)is the daughter who has gone to Hollywood to be a star, and is up for a big part in a sitcom. Throw in lecherous stereotype Johnny (Luis Guzman; “Oz”, “John From Cincinnati”) whose number one concern is his hair, family friend and former gangbanger Ozzy (Jay Hernandez; “Quarantine”, “Hostel”), and Jesse's ex-girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz; “Hamlet 2”, “Be Kind Rewind”) along with her new boyfriend and child and you have the makings for one big family gathering.

“Nothing Like the Holidays” is being advertised as a heartwarming Christmas comedy; this is very misleading. The reason I said before that this is not a holiday movie is that the holidays only serve as a backdrop for events. A similar story could have been built around Thanksgiving, New Years (like in the 1992 film “Peter's Friends” which is the first movie that this film made me think of while watching it), a family reunion, or a wedding and progressed in much the same way.

This film has a lot of comedic moments that come off really well (the entire chainsaw scene for example), but it is really more a drama that a comedy. In between those laugh out loud scenes is a lot of heavy drama as it becomes apparent that no one has their life as put together as it first seems. Anna and Edy are divorcing, Jesse's emotional wounds run far deeper than the physical scar on his eye, Roxanna is barely surviving in Hollywood, and Mauricio and Sarah are on the rocks over a job opportunity she has been offered. There are intense moments in this film that will have you on the edge of your seat, and even had some people in the theater crying a little.

The interaction of characters is truly this movie's strongest point. As the family fights amongst itself people switch sides while attacking each other in a smooth and very natural fashion; allegiances are made and broken in mere moments as different people become the focus of arguments. No matter how angry the characters get with each other, the fact that they love each other is never far from the surface. It is this firm grasp of the characters and well written dialog that makes the movie's intensely dramatic moments so effective.

The only real criticism I have to make about this film is that it feels a little rushed towards the end. It's as if the writers realized that they had spent so much time really exploring each characters problems and the solutions to those problems that they realized the the only way to keep the film under 100 minutes (it comes in at 99 minutes) was to jump right to the end. The way they handle this felt awkward to me, as they follow up the most intense moment of the film with a scene that should be comedy relief, but instead turns into yet another dramatic scene that catapults us to the conclusion of the movie.

“Nothing Like the Holidays” is rated PG-13, and does contain some swearing, innuendo, some very intense and mature scenes, and Alfred Molina in his underpants. If none of that will bother your younger viewers, then this could ultimately be a nice movie to watch as a family.

Just taking place at Christmas is not enough for me to call “Nothing Like the Holidays” a holiday movie (for the record; I do not consider “Die Hard” a holiday movie either), but that's okay; the film is not about Christmas, it's about family, and on that it fires on all cylinders.

If you want to laugh, gasp, balance on the edge of your seat, and maybe even get a little teary-eyed, there's nothing like “Nothing Like the Holidays” out there to do it. A superb cast, believable dialog, and overall good pacing makes it easy for even a Grinch like me to recommend you check it out. “Nothing Like the Holidays” is in theaters nationwide now.

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