Seventeen years after he scored at Sundance with “The Brothers McMullen,” prolific multihyphenate Edward Burns returns to family business with “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” an unpretentiously ingratiating dramedy about members of an Irish-American clan drawn together, whether they want to be or not, for a yuletide celebration. Much like Burns’ more recent indie efforts, his latest feature is a perfect fit for smallscreen platforms. But some carefully calibrated theatrical runs in sophisticated markets could attract an older demo during holiday-season exposure.
As usual, Burns the writer-director makes fine use of Burns the actor. This time, the affable thesp plays Gerry Fitzgerald, the oldest of seven children born to Josie (Anita Gillette), the feisty Irish-American matriarch with whom he still lives after all these years in their New York neighborhood family home.
Gerry evidently never finds it easy to corral all his self-absorbed siblings for any family-centric celebration, even his mom’s 70th birthday. This Christmas, however, it seems the roundup will be even more difficult, because Big Jim Fitzgerald (Ed Lauter), the father who walked out on the family 20 years earlier, wants to spend the holiday with his estranged wife and children.
Initially, Josie is openly hostile to the idea of a one-day reunion with Big Jim, even after she learns he is dying of pancreatic cancer. (It speaks volumes about their rocky relationship, and her enduring bitterness, that, at first, she can’t or won’t believe he’s telling the truth about his diagnosis.) But Gerry senses only slightly more enthusiasm for the proposed reunion from his brothers and sisters — three of whom have never really known their dad.
The large brood includes: Quinn (“Brothers McMullen” alumnus Michael McGlone), a swaggering hothead on the verge of proposing to his much-younger girlfriend (Daniella Pineda); Erin (Heather Burns), who has married well, and often is viewed (with ample cause) as snobbish by her siblings; Dottie (Marsha Dietlein Bennett), a discontent housewife who’s carrying on with her hunky young gardener; and Sharon (Kerry Bishe), a smart-mouthed cynic who’s having her own age-inappropriate affair with a randy rich guy (Noah Emmerich).
The most vulnerable of the lot are Cyril (Tom Guiry), newly released from rehab and not at all eager to see his errant dad; and Connie (Caitlin Fitzgerald), who discovers the hard way that announcing her pregnancy is not a good way to cheer up her abusive and unemployed boyfriend.
Burns doesn’t make it easy for his aud during the pic’s opening reels, as he briskly jumps from person to person, subplot to subplot, forcing viewers to scramble while connecting dots and discerning relationships. Once done with the heavy lifting of exposition, however, the pic shifts into a more relaxed pace while taking a sympathetic but not entirely uncritical view of the hastily sketched but vividly detailed characters as they gravitate toward a predictable but satisfying conclusion.
Burns’ dialogue rings true with its deft balance of blunt-spoken humor and emotionally charged vernacular, and his straightforward directorial approach is eminently suitable to the material. Almost everyone in the large cast gets a solo moment or two to shine, but especially impressive are Lauter, who shrewdly underplays Big Jim, somehow maintaining aud sympathy as his character shamelessly indicates that, never mind what harm he’s caused in the past, he feels entitled to enjoy one last Christmas with his family; and Connie Britton (another “Brothers McMullen” vet), who effortlessly conveys intelligence, compassion and down-to-earth sensuality as Nora, a family friend’s nurse who provides comfort and joy for the stressed-out Gerry.
Lenser William Rexer II again proves to be a most valuable player on Burns’ production team. Composer PT Walkley seamlessly weaves several traditional Christmas carols into his score without making the soundtrack sound too much like holiday-season Muzak.