Ed Burns has been making movies his way for almost 20 years now. And although his career may have found a new trajectory on the small screen – with his supporting role in Frank Darabont's upcoming TNT series 'Mob City' (and the recent announcement that the same network has just ordered a pilot for Burns' 1960-set police drama) – it's comforting to know that he still manages to get movies out with the kind of regularity that's normally reserved for the likes of Woody Allen.
'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' is the thirteenth feature film that Burns has written, produced, directed, and starred in since his making his big splash at Sundance in 1995 with 'The Brothers McMullen.' Like 'McMullen,' his latest effort concerns the inner-workings of a prickly Irish-American family from New York. Unlike the McMullens, however, the Fitzgerald family consists of more than three irascible young men, each with their own unique romantic issue to deal with. This time, Burns has seen fit to throw in four sisters, and cast himself as Gerry (that's Gerald Fitzgerald, if you don't know him that well), the eldest brother, and therefore would-be patriarch of the close-knit, but hot-tempered clan and orchestrator of the increasingly unlikely event that will bring everyone under the same roof for what may be their last Christmas together as a complete family.
The Fitzgeralds are a veritable who's-who of actors who have appeared in Burns' films, starting with his younger brother Quinn, who is played by original McMullen brother Mike McGlone. Meanwhile, three of the sisters, Dottie, Connie and Sharon are all played by Marsha Dietlein, Caitlin FitzGerald and rising star Kerry Bishé, respectively – all of whom starred alongside Burns in his 2011 effort 'Newlyweds.' But this just wouldn't feel like an Ed Burns film if Connie Britton ('Friday Night Lights,' 'American Horror Story') didn't pop up as well, but seeing as how she's Connie Britton, Burns had the sense to keep her out of the Fitzgerald gene pool, and cast her instead as the comely nurse Gerry winds up romancing in his spare time between putting out fires between his siblings, his mother and his estranged father, Jim (played terrifically here by the late Ed Lauter).
At this point in his career, Burns is a seasoned veteran in telling stories, and he's had enough success doing it his way that he manages to get a great deal of mileage (emotional and otherwise) out of a family's inability to move past the fact that their father left their mother 20 years ago, and their lives were irrevocably changed. Absentee and/or all around bastard fathers have become something of a common theme in Burns' work, as the death of one such insufferable patriarch began the narrative of his first film. Here, however, the Fitzgeralds are forced to deal with the ramifications of one man's selfish act, while continually facing the fact that their father is likely just a few miles from the house they all grew up in, living a new life without them. Naturally, it being two decades since the family was left fractured, the differences in age of the siblings has produced differing opinions of the man, and, more importantly, of the older brother who was ostensibly forced to step in and take his place.
In that regard, had 'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' taken place a decade earlier, it could have been the New York version of Showtime's 'Shameless' – minus the rampant drug abuse and anarchic tone, of course. Instead, the entirety of the film's narrative takes place a few days before Christmas, starting with the 70th birthday party of matriarch Rosie (Anita Gillette), which all the kids opt out of attending due to various romantic entanglements in their slightly chaotic personal lives. It's only when word gets out that Jim wants to spend what may be his last Christmas in the company of his family that the kids' focus begins to shift away from themselves and more toward the potential rebuilding of their family.
Burns uses a fairly maudlin set-up to bring his characters together for what is ultimately a sentimental film about the power of forgiveness and the spirit of the holiday season. It's borderline mawkish at times, but there's enough going on with the various characters that you hardly have time to notice. Besides, Burns manages to cut some interesting characters out of some fairly stock situations that involve things like an unplanned pregnancy, infidelity, multiple May-December romances (one of which involves the terrific Noah Emmerich, in a role that sees him go almost completely unused), and the ever useful just-out-of-rehab situation. But the trouble with a cast this large is that the film is only able to spend a fraction of its time developing these characters, so they have to be as richly drawn as possible early on in order for the audience to get anything out of them. Though Burns does his best by arranging as many possible scenarios between the siblings to allow for such development, most of the Fitzgerald children wind up feeling a little like ciphers who are there to pad out certain dialogue-heavy scenes and act as info dumps to get the audience caught up on the last 20 years of Fitzgerald family history.
One of the complaints we hear amongst the siblings is that, despite being a family and growing up together in the same house, some of them don't know each other perhaps as well as they should. Inevitably, this sentiment is echoed in how little the audience will get to know the members of the titular family. But even though Burns is spreading several characters across approximately 97 minutes, he still manages to make most of them seem like they matter, by folding all of their arcs into a tear-jerking denouement that's affecting without becoming utterly saccharine.
In many ways, 'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' is a return to form for Ed Burns as a writer-director, as it brings him back to the themes that began his career as a filmmaker. In that respect, it's interesting to see how he's matured and what he's now able to bring to the table in terms of his storytelling and filmmaking ability. Ultimately, he's made a not so typical holiday film that those from similar family dynamics may find appealing, while those just looking for a heartwarming Christmas movie might wind up scratching their heads at.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' comes from Magnolia Home Entertainment as a single 50GB Blu-ray that contains both the PG-13 and Unrated versions of the film. The Unrated version is the only one with optional commentary by the director.
Shot on RED, 'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' comes with a terrific looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that looks so crisp and pristine, it is the antithesis of Burns' 16 mm effort 'The Brother's McMullen.' In that regard, the film also struggles to have that visceral indie feel, as it winds up looking much like any other film released in the last five or so years. A lack of distinctness aside, the image is actually rich with fine detail and vibrant colors that play up the holiday by juxtaposing the gray, drab, early winter New York landscape against the festive decorations and lights that typically signify Christmas.
Detail is terrific in both facial features and other small textures. Contrast is high in virtually ever scene, providing deep, inky black levels and white, but not hot, whites. The contrast also plays a key part in the film's look, as interior segments tend to run on the darker side of things. Normally, this would cause the image to lose some of its detail, or for the picture to become grainy or overwhelmed with banding. Thankfully this is not the case here, as the image remains crisp, clear and detailed throughout.
Burns has clearly learned a thing or two when it comes to filming digitally, as he's managed to create an image that looks very close to film and maintains a very rich, layered look that is similar to films with ten times this film's budget.
With it's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, 'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' sounds quite good, but honestly, there's not a whole lot for the mix to do. On occasion, the soundtrack manages to make good on some light atmospheric elements like New York traffic, or the din of a restaurant, but for the most part, this is a dialogue heavy feature with a mix that excels at bringing that element in the best way possible. To be fair, there are time when the Fitzgeralds are all talking over one another, and the mix spreads this out in very interesting way, using imaging to a surprisingly accurate degree. This helps to make the film feel a little more immersive than you might expect and gives the listener a sense of atmosphere, as the echoes of the family home ring different that, say, a ferry terminal or the aforementioned restaurant.
Even though there's not a whole lot for the mix to do outside of the occasional car door slamming or raised voice, the mix here is quite good and does a nice job of making a smaller film feel much larger and more lived in.
'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' isn't necessarily going to become part of your family's must-see holiday viewing, but for fans of independent cinema and, more specifically, Ed Burns' brand of entertainment, it does make for some nice viewing. Burns is typically quite good at delivering quality commentary on filmmaking on Twitter, so it's nice to have a disc featuring commentary from him in more than 140 character chunks. The disc also boasts a nice picture and good sound, and although it could have used a few more special features, you could do worse with a rental. This on is definitely worth a look.