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With: Alfred Molina, Freddy Rodríguez, John Leguizamo, Debra Messing, Vanessa Ferlito, Melonie Diaz, Elizabeth Peña, Luis Guzmán, Jay Hernandez
Written by: Alison Swan and Rick Najera, based on a story by Robert Teitel and Rene M. Rigal
Directed by: Alfredo De Villa
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including some sexual dialogue, and brief drug references
Running Time: 99
Date: 11/11/2008

Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Christmas Tree Sap

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Simplistic and soapy, Nothing Like the Holidays nonetheless succeeds in warming the cockles. Director Alfredo De Villa avoids both cynicism and treacle, and starts with a level, realistic playing field, allowing the story's heightened emotions to spring forth naturally, like fresh greenery poking through the blacktop.

Set in chilly Chicago, the story revolves around a loud, loving family of Puerto Ricans (played by a dream cast) who assemble for Christmas. Buttoned-up and bespectacled, Mauricio (John Leguizamo), and his thin, white wife Sarah (Debra Messing), arrive from New York. Struggling sexpot actress Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito, from Tarantino's Death Proof) arrives from Hollywood. And prodigal son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) comes home scarred but intact from Iraq. Dad (Alfred Molina) happily runs the family store while mom (Elizabeth Pena) cooks and badgers her offspring for grandchildren. An uncouth cousin (Luis Guzman) and other family friends round out the gathering.

Creaky dramas erupt: mom announces she wants a divorce, Jesse pines after his former flame Marissa (Melonie Diaz), and Roxanna is waiting for news on a part. And, of course, someone has cancer and is hiding it from the rest of the family. Yet, it's remarkable how well De Villa sorts through and balances these threads, reveling in their natural messiness and not even bothering to tidy them all up at the end. The group chemistry has a lot to do with the film's success; everyone is boisterous and crude, but ultimately open and honest, and they all feel right together. Even Messing manages to sidestep her usual hectic, jerky style and finds something more human. It's surprisingly easy to get sucked into this daytime drama, albeit guiltily and gleefully.

DVD Details: Extras on Anchor Bay's 2009 DVD include a commentary track with actor Freddy Rodriguez, director Alfredo De Villa and producer Robert Teitel. There's a really nice "cast reunion" featurette (26 minutes), with seven cast members sitting around a talking by themselves. We also get bloopers (15 minutes) and trailers for this and other Overture features. The feature is presented with an alternate Spanish-language track and optional subtitles.

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