You’ve seen it before, when it was titled “This Christmas”; and you saw it before that, when it was titled “The Family Stone.” But if the new comedy-drama “Nothing Like the Holidays” wins no points for originality, it’s got heart and sincerity to burn.
Focusing on a fractious Puerto Rican family in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago reunited for Christmas for the first time in years, it also offers a window onto a culture and a community we don’t get to see very often in the multiplex. The superb, mostly Latin actors relish the rare opportunity to take center stage, and let us in on their joy.
Edy Rodriguez (Alfred Molina, a Brit who — as he showed in “Frida” — plays Latino very convincingly) is the proud owner of a neighborhood bodega, and the father of three children: lawyer Mauricio (John Leguizamo), who lives in New York and is married to a high-strung, career-minded Jewish woman (Debra Messing); struggling actress Roxanne (Vanessa Ferlito), who is currently waiting to hear if she’s landed a small part on a new television series; and Iraq war veteran Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), who is reckoning with both survivor’s guilt and a lingering affection for the pretty neighborhood girl (Melonie Diaz) he left behind. But just as everyone settles in for the first meal together, matriarch Anna (Elizabeth Pena) announces that she’s divorcing Edy after nearly four decades, because she’s caught him cheating on her once again.
Much chaos and sentimentality ensues, including an altogether misjudged subplot involving a family friend named Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) determined to hunt down and murder the gang member responsible for his brother’s death (Manny Perez); the sight of the adorably baby-faced Hernandez with tattoos and a gun induces one of the movie’s biggest unintentional laughs.
But “Nothing Like the Holidays,” directed by Alfredo De Villa and written by Alison Swan and Rick Najera, features any number of generous and charming passages. Watch out, particularly, for Mauricio’s attempt to cut down a tree with a chain saw, a sequence that will resonate with anyone who has ever been mocked by his family for not being good with power tools. The actors, too, are a consistent pleasure to watch. Pena and Molina portray two people so paralyzed by their own pride that they’ve long since stopped remembering to communicate with one another. Leguizamo is, as usual, a bundle of infectious energy.
Best of all is Rodriguez, of “Six Feet Under” and “Grindhouse,” who does his best work yet as the tortured soldier who now feels disconnected from everyone around him. He reminds us that if you invest shopworn material with intelligence and dignity, you’re apt to transform it into something compelling and new.
“Nothing Like the Holidays”
Cast: Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez, Elizabeth Pena, Luis Guzman
Director: Alfredo De Villa
Time: 98 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (sexual content, drug references)