Show me a family during the yuletide season, and I'll give you even odds there'll be plenty of bickering, sniping, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, good-natured ribbing, and unexpected moments of tenderness and joy. 'Nothing Like the Holidays' depicts all of that, and though it adopts a Latino point of view, the family at the center of its thickly layered story really could be any old American or ethnic brood. That's both good and bad, because while the issues Alfredo De Villa's film addresses are universal and cross cultural and economic boundaries (that's the good part), the movie lacks the exotic spice and sense of discovery we often get when plumbing an unfamiliar sector of society. Sure, there's some nice Latino flavor to 'Nothing Like the Holidays,' but the picture more closely resembles a Puerto Rican version of 'Moonstruck' and, as a result, often struggles to assert its own identity.
Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) arrives home from his tour of duty in Iraq a bit battered and emotionally shell-shocked, but still in one piece, and he's glad to get back to his old Chicago neighborhood where his parents, Edy and Anna (Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena), whose long-standing marriage is now on the rocks, await him with open arms. Jesse's siblings also make the trip back to the modest family homestead – aspiring actress Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) jets in from L.A., and is on tenterhooks regarding a potential role on a new sitcom, while Yuppie financial whiz Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his Anglo wife Sarah (Debra Messing), whom Anna treats with thinly veiled disdain, try their best to fit into the lower-middle-class environment. Health problems, romantic issues, domestic disputes, professional dilemmas, and enough squabbles to stuff a holiday bird follow, and the presentation alternates between mildly amusing comedy and Hallmark-quality drama.
Some fine character interactions distinguish the film and keep it afloat, and a few bittersweet moments add touches of welcome realism, but the script by Alison Swan and Rick Najera often feels like a Lifetime teleplay with some wisecracks and attitude thrown in to perk things up. And other than acting as a festive backdrop and convenient plot device to engender a reunion, "the holidays" serve no real purpose in the story. This is certainly not a real "Christmas" movie that merits an annual spin alongside other seasonal favorites, but as a tale of tangled relationships it muddles along well enough.
The actors make the most of the mediocre material, and the performances really help sell the film. Messing particularly makes an impression as the odd-girl-out who struggles to assimilate into an intimidating family and embrace a foreign culture while maintaining her sense of self. The rest of the ensemble cast works well together, but I was a bit put off by the casting of Molina as the family patriarch. The man is an exceptionally fine actor, and has proven he can adapt to any nationality (he was superb as a Frenchman in 'Chocolat') and certainly makes a believable Puerto Rican, but why the director chose an Englishman to portray Edy instead of any number of well qualified Hispanic/Latino actors is puzzling to me, and detracts ever so slightly from the movie's authenticity.
'Nothing Like the Holidays' outclasses several other entries in the seasonal genre, but it never grabbed me like I thought and hoped it would. Too trite and too predictable, the story only gels in fits and starts, and the pedestrian direction does little to enliven the mood. The slice-of-life approach works well at times, but can't quite worm this holiday dramedy into our hearts.
There's nothing glaringly wrong with this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Anchor Bay, but it never quite achieves the level of vibrancy and dimensionality one expects from a Blu-ray disc. A pleasing grain structure provides a film-like experience and no marks or speckles sully the source material, but the image flaunts a nagging flatness that keeps the movie from coming alive. A faint yellowish cast clouds several scenes, and colors remain a tad muted and pale, even when taking the drabness of the urban setting into account. Clarity is fine, but close-ups never quite pop with detail. Fleshtones look natural, black levels are satisfactory, and shadow delineation is good, and though some softness occasionally rears its ugly head, there's no posturization, digital noise, or edge sharpening to distract from the on-screen action. This is certainly an acceptable effort, just not one to elicit raves.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track outputs satisfactory audio, but there's little surround activity to distinguish it. The front-heavy mix possesses good tone and dynamic range, and some decent stereo separation adds a bit of flair to the sound field. The track livens up whenever music kicks in, broadening its scope and providing deeper fidelity, but such instances are few and far between. Dialogue, of course, is the most important element, and it comes through clearly and is properly prioritized. Bass frequencies are weak, but there's little if any opportunity for the lower register to shine. All in all, this is a ho-hum track that won't excite the ears, but won't pain them either.
A fair amount of extras round out the disc. Quality is mediocre, but those who enjoy the film will find the material – all of which is presented in high definition – worth a look.
'Nothing Like the Holidays' provides a welcome holiday slice of life, but its run-of-the-mill story does little to infuse viewers with seasonal spirit. Some may warm up to this tightly-knit-but-fraying-at-the-seams family more than others, but the clan left me rather cold. Standard video and audio transfers add little sparkle, but the supplemental package offers a few goodies for fans. Test drive this one with a rental first.