Let’s give thanks this Christmas season for a small miracle. Between the two holiday films getting Smacked around here, there isn’t a guy who’s becoming Santa, or Santa’s brother, or even an overgrown Elf forced to make it in the big city. Instead we have more-or-less semi or comically real families trying to sort out their differences when they’re forced to hang-out together and share a little winter wonderland quality time. Instead of often lame attempts at wringing some forced laughs out of the fantasy of Christmas legend, both of our competitors serve up another theme that’s gaining currency in these days of corruption, panic and collapse: the edgy holiday movie.
“Nothing Like the Holidays” offers Christmas with a Latin beat in Chicago while “Four Christmases,” which began looking for laughs right after Thanksgiving and has been gangbusters at the box-office, gives us self-absorbed millennial yuppies (muppies?) forced to deal with the debris of families torn apart by divorce and separation. Film families forced into close quarters at Christmas. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. The question is: which one here offers a real Christmas present and which is a slice of stale fruitcake?
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It’s Christmastime in Northwest Chicago and the magnet of familial obligation draws the Rodriguez family together. It’s a distinctive group that populates “Nothing Like the Holidays.” Strong willed parents Edy and Anna Rodriguez (Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena) are reflected in the vivid personalities of their children: Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), just back from a tour in Iraq and haunted by the experience; lawyer brother Mauricio (John Leguizamo); actress sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito). They all open their baggage during a weeklong visit: Anna publicly accuses Edy of adultery and demands a divorce. Mauricio and his Anglo wife, Sarah (Debra Messing) squabble over starting a family; Roxanna frets over an acting career stuck in low gear.
Complications arise: Jesse can’t sort out his feelings toward the woman he dumped, Marissa. Sarah discovers Edy is neither a philanderer nor the robust man of the house. Violence threatens to erupt outside the family circle, and Mauricio manages to alienate everyone within it. These issues play out against a colorful backdrop of Latino Christmas with its distinctive sights and and observed rhythms. Writers Rick Najera, Ted Perkins and Alison Swan handle matters as effectively as that assembly line of relatives making Christmas tamales at my Aunt Virginia’s house.
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The Defending Champion
Over and over, “Four Christmases” makes the case that familiarity breeds contempt. Thick fog at the San Francisco airport stymies the vacation getaway plans of Brad and Kate (Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon) and a live interview on local TV derails their “official story” about being out of town helping unfortunates in third world distress. They are self absorbed and like it that way. Brad is the sort of loud, lumpy good time guy Vince Vaughn holds the patent on. Kate prefers a risk-averse approach to life. They become unlikely, unwilling tour guides on home visits to the divorced parents. Brad and Kate’s four-stop Christmaspalooza introduces an odd collection of cardboard cutout relatives: His dad is a crusty coot (Robert Duvall) who reveals Brad’s real name is Orlando. Brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw) are rough wannabes on the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit. Bay area rednecks — who’da thunk it? Brad’s mom (Sissy Spacek) has taken up with his childhood pal. Kate has a mom (Mary Steenburgen) who is now a church-going single with a thing for Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam) and a sister Courtney (Kristin Chenoweth) who delights in recounting Kate’s earlier life as a fat kid. Kate’s dad (Jon Voight) senses her desire for more in life. Writers Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Scott Moore and Jon Lucas corralled a free-ranging tale of yuppies who don’t think Christmas with the family is much of a present.
Both movies deal with Christmas themes, but one is a mug of egg nog gone slightly bad. There’s no nice way to put it: Never, never have I seen a movie get so little from five Oscar winners as I witnessed in “Four Christmases.” Duvall, Witherspoon, Steenburgen, Spacek and Voight –all great actors– did not burnish their legacies. They rarely shine and there are few laughs in all that ensemble activity. Mostly, they are lost in the stew. The writing is mostly lifeless, so is director Seth Gordon’s staging. Perhaps no amount of A-list acting talent could have found a true, human moment in a baby’s projectile vomiting trotted out not once, but twice.
I suspect Vince Vaughn is quickly wearing out his comedic welcome. What I found funny and engaging in “Wedding Crashers,” even “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” now seems like a house guest who overstayed his welcome. By the end of this movie I expected some growth, some transformation beyond a change of expression.
By contrast, “Nothing Like the Holidays” director Alfredo De Villa pulls more from a talented, potentially unwieldy cast. I could identify with the strong personalities, cultural dynamics and clipped music of Puerto Rican spanish. Everyone owns a distinct story: Anna and Edy speak in the quiet intimacy of a shared history. Freddy Rodriguez (an executive producer on the film) is more than a war-haunted soldier. Mauricio and Sarah wrestle with “The Kid Issue” and Debra Messing is quite touching as a loving outsider trying to fit in with her non-Jewish family. Roxanna weighs the conflicting pull of Hollywood and home. I swear every Latino home includes someone as well meaning and inappropriate as Luis Guzman’s character, Johnny.
These pieces are affecting, but peripheral because they need a unifying element stronger than a Christmas homecoming. Raising the dramatic quotient through a larger dramatic event would have sharpened the power of all these small, important transformations touching the Rodriguez family on the way to La Noche Buena.
So, yes, one of these Christmas movies is more than a re-gifted sweater from Uncle Toto. And it’s not the one that’s been booming at the box office.
“Four Christmases” showcases disappointing ensemble performances from actors who’ve done much better work. The material is joyless, not very insightful and — bad news for a comedy — not so funny. A Nativity pageant will strike some viewers as heavy on sacrilege, too light on humor. The main characters are largely unchanged. This movie needed a better, funnier wrap up than a vomiting baby.
This is not to say “Nothing Like the Holidays” gets a free ride. This movie showed honest emotions, three dimensional characters — not caricatures — but it needed to offer more than La Navidad with chips on the side. It wins points for revealing a convincing truth about Latino families: They’re not just one thing. They vary in education, attainment, personal foibles and their connecti
on to cultural roots. Just like everyone else. As for their movie, it needed more dramatic action.
Even so, you’ll find more than enough in this Smackdown! of edgy holiday movies to declare a winner, “Nothing Like The Holidays.”