Nothing Like The Holidays, while posing as an innocuous seasonal comedy, is one of the most emotionally violent films of the year. The movie’s poster, in showing what seems like a winsome family gathering, purports to be an inoffensive film. “They’re just a typical American family. Minus the typical” the flippant tagline reads. The trailer of the film also follows suit, making director Alfredo De Villa’s opus look like a whimsical tableau about Christmas quirkiness. I was surprised, then, to learn how dreadfully stringent the movie was on humor, and how shockingly complacent it was to twist our arm in seriousness.
De Villa’s story takes place in Chicago, where the Rodriguez family plans to reunite and have a cozy Christmas together. Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), fresh off the plane from serving in Iraq, comes home with lacerations on his eye; he has just seen extensive combat action, and is repressing severe emotional trauma. Apparently, while doing some reconnaissance in the middle east, his friend was killed in front of him. Jesse’s emotional battle – the largest in the movie – is the axis to the screenplay.
Back in Chicago, the rest of the family are already entrenched with their own battles at home. All of Jesse’s siblings are dealing with seismic conundrums that arrive just in time for Christmas. Important topics arise that, in the hands of a more gifted director, could’ve been interesting dramatic arcs. This movie believes it can wrap up each crisis with the sitcom hurriedness of a Full House episode. In Nothing Like the Holidays, problems exist without the thoughtfulness to examine them, and resolutions are achieved through obligatory embraces of forgiveness. When addressing problems such as infidelity, the Iraq war, gang violence, and cultural theologies, you‘re taking on a great responsibility to do them justice. Nothing Like the Holidays sweeps these volatile events together, and believes, within a ninety-minute period, that it can make a common marriage between them while still maintaining that they’re separate issues. I’m not buying this, and neither should you.
Regardless of bad marketing ploys, the bulk of the movie relies more on dramatic interactions than slapstick humor. The snow flurries are in short supply, the gregarious laughter stifled, and the flashing Christmas bulbs dimmed. I’m not sure if there was a cup of scalding hot cocoa in this movie, but if there was, it would’ve been thrown at the face of an innocent bystander. Every family member, in synchronized fashion, gives a severe drubbing to one another. In fact, Luis Guzman, the only intentionally comedic character in this movie, has only a few lines during his screen time to break up the gloomy monotony. Other times, Debra Messing, in a bid to act semi-engaging, skulks around trying to understand her own character. There is a distinct feeling that, no matter how many times these actors force smiles to their faces, they lack the basic confidence to pull off the simplest of scenes.
I’m not condemning De Villa’s effort to realize some of today’s current events; I only wish he would’ve taken them more seriously. Nothing Like the Holiday’s screenwriters – with only a handful of obscure credits between them – should take some of the blame. If De Villa had a script that wasn’t written by, say, someone who wrote an episode of BBQ Bill, he may have had a fighting chance.
I kind of feel bad for the characters in this movie. Anna, the mother of the Rodriguez clan, apprehensively accepts all of her family’s fighting, despite much chagrin. I, unfortunately, could not do the same.