'Nothing Like the Holidays'

After getting past the awful title, which evokes images of madcap Christmas mayhem, "Nothing Like the Holidays" proves a mildly efficient holiday stocking-stuffer, albeit one whose one truly distinctive characteristic is its predominantly Hispanic cast.

After getting past the awful title, which evokes images of madcap Christmas mayhem, “Nothing Like the Holidays” proves a mildly efficient holiday stocking-stuffer, albeit one whose one truly distinctive characteristic is its predominantly Hispanic cast. So “The Family Stone” becomes “The Family Rodriguez,” and to their credit, the able performers wring as much mileage as they can from such familiar material. Box office should fare best in urban niches, but pic’s real afterlife could be as a de facto pilot for another stab at a Latino-themed TV series.

Producers Robert Teitel and George Tillman Jr. certainly know that route, having taken both “Barbershop” and “Soul Food” from theatrical runs to pay-TV spinoffs. Here, with “Washington Heights” director Alfredo De Villa calling the shots, they’ve delivered another robust slice of ethnic life — focusing on a large, boisterous clan within Chicago’s Puerto Rican community.

This Christmas reunion, however, brings not only old faces but some pretty tired storylines to the home of Edy Rodriguez (Alfred Molina), a bodega owner, and his wife, Anna (the wonderful Elizabeth Pena).

Son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is home from Iraq, bearing scars both visible and not, while pining for the girl (Melonie Diaz) he left behind. Daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) has become a “star” in Los Angeles, but she’s really not, and spends the entire holiday waiting for a call regarding whether she’s landed a long-awaited part. (Her agent calls back during the holidays, so there’s obviously an element of fantasy here.)

Finally, there’s successful attorney Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his banker wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), who are both so career-driven they’ve yet to fulfill Anna’s yearnings for grandchildren. “She won’t cook or eat,” the older woman mutters in Spanish about her rich, white daughter-in-law, while family and friends paint him as a sellout and wonder why he and the missus haven’t produced a “Sorta Rican.”

While there are several amusing lines in Alison Swan and Rick Najera’s script, there’s nary an unexpected moment. Indeed, the family Christmas devolves predictably into an unintentional version of the “Seinfeld” holiday Festivus, including feats of strength and a conspicuous airing of grievances.

The saving grace comes from the earnestness of the performances — most notably from Pena, who, despite the sprawling ensemble, uses her limited screen time to render Anna a powerful matriarch invested with an assortment of qualities, from imperious to wounded to fraught with concern about Jesse putting his life at risk.

If only the movie itself took even a marginal risk. As is, it’s a thin, almost claustrophobic tale, with the family spending so much time inside the house bantering, arguing and reconnecting that the occasional exterior forays onto the neighborhood’s snow-covered, wintry streets prove especially welcome. Paul Oakenfold does aid matters with his widely varied score.

Given that an inferior holiday comedy, “Four Christmases,” is presently bringing Warner Bros. Yuletide cheer, perhaps there’s heightened appetite right now for cinematic comfort food. Beyond that, “Nothing Like the Holidays” is sorta Rican, sorta OK, and exactly like any number of family tales, just with a different accent.

Nothing Like the Holidays

Production

An Overture Films release of a State Street Pictures production. Produced by Robert Teitel, George Tillman Jr. Executive producers, Rene M. Rigal, Paul Kim, Reid Brody, Freddy Rodriguez. Co-producer, Thomas J. Busch. Directed by Alfredo De Villa. Screenplay, Alison Swan, Rick Najera.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Scott Kevan; editors, Amy Duddleston, Paul Coniglio; music, Paul Oakenfold; music supervisors, Budd Carr, Nora Felder; production designer, Daniel B. Clancy; art director, Stephanie Gilliam; set decorator, Trish McDonnell; costume designer, Sue Kaufman; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), David Obermeyer; supervising sound editor, Javier Bennassar; assistant director, Richard S. Lederer; casting, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at Grauman's Chinese Theater, Los Angeles, Dec. 3, 2008. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN. (English, Spanish dialogue)

With

Edy Rodriguez - Alfred Molina Anna Rodriguez - Elizabeth Pena Jesse Rodriguez - Freddy Rodriguez Johnny - Luis Guzman Ozzy - Jay Hernandez Mauricio Rodriguez - John Leguizamo Sarah Rodriguez - Debra Messing Roxanna Rodriguez - Vanessa Ferlito Marissa - Melonie Diaz
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