Elizabeth Pena, Alfred Molina, Debra Messing, Freddy Rodriguez, Jay Hernandez, Vanessa Ferlito
Alfredo De Villa
Alison Swan, Rick Najera
If you've been reading my reviews for awhile now, then you surely know that I have a single holiday tradition...each year, I see a horror film on Christmas Day.
People think I'm kidding about this tradition. "Sure," they say, "You don't like the holidays. We know that. But, a horror film? On Christmas Day? Every year? No way," they erroneously conclude.
Every year...without fail for at least the past dozen years or so.
The truth is what started out as a coping skill for dealing with holiday trauma has, on some sick level, become a source of dysfunctional pride.
I have another confession, though.
I like Christmas films. ALL Christmas films...even the bad ones, usually.
Heck, I even found myself somewhat fond of "Christmas With The Kranks."
No, I'm not kidding.
So, when I found out that 2008 would bring us a Hispanic Christmas tale, well, I was downright excited.
Filled with a cast of Hollywood's most recognizable Hispanic actors and actresses, "Nothing Like the Holidays" is a familiar story with familiar characters told with a distinctly Hispanic flavor.
The Puerto Rican Rodriguez family, is gathering for what may be their last holiday together in West Chicago's Humboldt Park.
There are the parents, Anna (Elizabeth Pena, "Transamerica") and Edy (Alfred Molina, "Spider-Man 2"), a couple that appears on the verge of divorce.
There's returning Iraqi war vet Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez, "Ugly Betty"), who can't seem to get past the death of a fellow soldier or a girlfriend who got away (Melonie Diaz, "Hamlet 2").
There's Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito, "Death Proof"), a struggling actress.
Of course, there's a struggling couple in Mauricio (John Leguizamo, "Miracle at St. Anna") and Sarah (Debra Messing, "Will & Grace"). Sarah also seems to be the obligatory cinematic cross-cultural experience for the film.
I assure you, there are others. This is part of the problem. Director Alfredo De Villa ("Washington Heights") and screenwriters Alison Swan and Rick Najera simply try too hard to make "Nothing Like the Holidays" more symbolic and more important than it really needs to be.
A Christmas film need not be brilliant, life-changing cinema.
A Christmas film merely needs to be heartfelt, inspiring or, at the very least, radiating of good will towards men.
Nothing more is needed.
Unfortunately, "Nothing Like the Holidays" tries to do more and, in the end, falls short of its more lofty goals.
This doesn't mean, however, that "Nothing Like the Holidays" fails.
In fact, it doesn't fail. While the film occasionally aims too high, the actors who are present here seem to be genuinely enjoying playing variations of themselves. While not all the cast are Puerto Ricans (only Messing, it seems, is non-Hispanic), they all vividly and sometimes quite touchingly bring to life elements of their individual and collective experiences to their roles.
The truth is I don't think "Nothing Like the Holidays" is about a Puerto Rican family. It's about a family that happens to be Puerto Rican.
There's a definite difference.
I get the distinct impression that some will look at this film and think "Wait. I don't want to see that. That's not aimed at me."
You'd be wrong...just as I was wrong before I entered the film and just as I portrayed wrong in the early writing of this review. I'm not sure Hollywood has ever given us a Christmas film featuring a Hispanic family SO it is easy to conclude that "Nothing Like the Holidays" is a Hispanic film.
"Nothing Like the Holidays" is a universal film that does carry with it moments that celebrate the Hispanic community while never allowing the characters to seem that much different from you and me.
Much like happened for me during last year's largely African-American holiday film "This Christmas," I found myself readily identifying with characters throughout "Nothing Like the Holidays" and, yes, smiling and laughing throughout the film.
The ensemble cast is uniformly strong, though Debra Messing and Elizabeth Pena seem to stand-out as two women who come from different worlds but learn to appreciate each other.
This Christmas day I have no doubt I will continue my only holiday tradition. I will see yet another horror film this year. While "Nothing Like the Holidays" isn't destined to become a holiday classic, it is an entertaining and heartfelt cinematic stocking stuffer that may very well remind you that the message of peace and joy, love and family is universal.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic