Nothing Like the Holidays is like a lot of other holiday movies. A family gathers for Christmas, sharing dinners, drinks, and dreams, revealing during their three days together long-simmering tensions and coming to heartwarming reconciliations. Here, as usual, the parents argue over betrayals of trust, while each adult child discloses a problem: a daughter is having second thoughts about her Hollywood career, a son is wondering when he and his executive wife will have a baby, and still another brother is just back from three years in Iraq, duly traumatized.
Save for the detail about the war veteran — as well as the Humboldt Park location and the fact that the family here is named Rodriguez — the movie retreads any number of others, well known and unknown, recent and ancient. (The most immediate source, itself borrowing from other precursors, is last year’s This Christmas, which featured quarreling parents, an actress daughter, and a professional couple in trouble.) The repetition in itself is not unseemly — white folks have been copying themselves in such movies for years, not incidentally asserting a kind of proprietary notion of Christmas in so doing. Any efforts to lay claim to or reshape holiday stories for other communities seems of a piece with the U.S. self-image and mandate toward melting pots and mixed salads, and so, all to the good.
Nothing Like the Holidays does offer glimpses of mixed-culture experience, in dishes heaped with empanadillas set against an American football game on TV, in discussions of hedge funds alongside preparations for the parranda (a triumphant, if brief, sequence, with a wide-screened throng of neighbors singing carols in English and Spanish). But for the most part, Nothing Like the Holidays focuses on problems and plot points that might show up in any similarly seasonal entertainment.
And so: patriarch Edy (Alfred Molina) is in the doghouse with his long-suffering wife Anna (Elizabeth Peña), owing to his past dalliance with another woman and his current distraction by phone calls at key family-gathering moments. He’s also on the verge of being disappointed that his returning soldier son Jesse (Freddy Rodríguez) is not inclined to take over the family bodega, owing to his own, multiple “issues,” including a best friend killed in the war, a damaged face, a lost girlfriend, Marissa (Melonie Diaz) currently dating beautiful Fernando (Ramses Jimenez). But if Edy and Jesse are at odds with one another, they can agree on their frustration with Mauricio (John Leguizamo), whose marriage to Sarah (Debra Messing) has not yet produced babies, but instead has them both perpetually concerned with designer suits and bank accounts.
While the familial in-group is alternately tolerant of Sarah and impatient with her inevitable Caucasianisms, they mostly ignore their own flesh and blood, Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito). Teetering on high heeled boots as she trundles her pink suitcase-on-wheels over the sidewalk, Roxanna spends too much time waiting for her cell phone to ring, awaiting news from her agent concerning a part in a midseason replacement TV series (the lead-in, she says hopefully, will be Desperate Housewives). Her relatives let this preoccupation pass, though her father’s cute employee Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) is more interested in what she’s up to. Much like Mekhi Phifer’s Gerald in This Christmas, Ozzy is a goodhearted townie, the most loyal and discerning of the prodigal daughter’s numerous possible suitors, devoted to her but generous enough to wish her well in her faraway profession. Roxanna has only to discover that her heart’s desire has been back in Kansas, er, Chicago, all this time, and so give up all this silly career business.
Roxanna’s story generally parallels that of her brother Jesse, though his ends less predictably. Nothing Like the Holidays doesn’t dwell on his experience in Iraq: he suffers from no explanatory flashbacks and doesn’t talk much about what went wrong over there (save for a big revelation for Marissa, the scene that’s making the talk show rounds with Rodríguez). Instead, he’s engrossed in recovering what he sees as his lost manhood, in competitions with Nando (over who can chainsaw the big old metaphorical-literal tree in the front yard) or plaintive passes at Marissa.
Jesse is best supported in his recovery and reassessment efforts by longtime compadre Johnny (Luis Guzmán). His robust performance combines a gaudy seeming gayness with various macho accessories (his Escalade is equipped with proud “Puerto Rican” decals on his seatbelts) and some semblance of wit (“So when,” he asks Mauricio and Sarah, “Are you two gonna make some Sorta-Ricans?”). As he observes the family’s quarrels and antics, Johnny offers an alternative masculine model — gifted with sharp humor, perspective, and a heart big enough to forgive and celebrate everyone.