Fine cast does its best with trite story line in ‘Nothing Like the Holidays’

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 11, 2008 5:58pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The home-for-the-holidays movie isn’t played out yet. We had two African-American versions in last year’s schedule, and the current “A Christmas Tale” gives a decidedly dysfunctional take from France.

It’s time for the Latino community to be represented. So make way for “Nothing Like the Holidays,” a cardboard comedy that rolls out a healthy collection of fine Latino character actors.

The setting is a Chicago neighborhood, where the Rodriguez family has deep roots — just like the all-too-symbolic old tree clogging up their front yard. The patriarch, Edy (Alfred Molina) runs a little bodega, and mom Anna (Elizabeth Pena) has raised three now-adult kids.

The oldest son is played by John Leguizamo, attending with his stereotypically uptight Anglo wife (Debra Messing), and the middle child is an aspiring actress played by “Grindhouse” star Vanessa Ferlito.

But the most excitement surrounds the return of youngest son Jesse, an Iraq War vet, played by Freddy Rodriguez (who also had a stint in “Grindhouse,” and was terrific in “Bobby” and “Harsh Times”). He’s been gone for three years, and he’s a little curious about the girl (Melonie Diaz) he dumped before he went overseas.

The patchwork script is a collection of the usual misunderstandings and character beats: Jesse is haunted by a death he witnessed, Edy harbors a secret, Anna makes a dramatic announcement at dinner one night.

Various cliffhangers are set up, to be handily resolved by the end of the picture. But nothing too intense happens, unless you count a chainsaw’s defeat at the base of the tree.

What director Alfredo De Villa is able to do around this blueprint is encourage his actors to play. That’s the main pleasure of the movie: watching veteran scene-stealer Luis Guzman get silly, or Pena do a drunk scene, or Rodriguez and Jay Hernandez engage in friendly macho taunting. And John Leguizamo’s riffing gives even ordinary scenes a little extra crackle.

It’s all in the service of something that would fit neatly in a Lifetime TV-movie, except for the occasional four-letter word. Buy your tickets accordingly — or wait for it on cable.

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