Over the last few years we’ve seen a number of modestly budgeted middlebrow Tyler Perry-inspired comedies like This Christmas and The Perfect Holiday about African-American families reuniting for the yuletide season. Finally somebody recognized that other minority groups also like to gather their families together over Christmas. Thus we have the Latin-flavored dramedy Nothing Like the Holidays, which mostly just fills an empty niche, though it accomplishes one thing that’s rather amazing.
The movie centers around Ediberto “Edy” Rodriguez (Alfred Molina), the Puerto Rican owner of a bodega in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago. For the first time in three years, all three of his grown children are back in town for Christmas: Mauricio (John Leguizamo), a well-off Wall Street type negotiating with his wife (Debra Messing) about the best time to have a baby; Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), a mightily struggling Hollywood actress who’s wondering if she’s chosen the wrong career; and Jesse (Freddy Rodríguez), a soldier who’s just finished his tour in Iraq. The warm feelings of the reunion are soon exploded when Edy’s wife Anna (Elizabeth Peña) suddenly announces she wants a divorce after 36 years of marriage.
The various plotlines are all dully familiar from other Christmas family reunion movies: Ediberto is hiding a secret from everyone else, one of his employees (Jay Hernandez) threatens to lapse back into his former life of crime, and Jesse tries to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) who has moved on. There’s also a running gag about the Rodriguez men’s futile attempts to remove a gnarled old tree from Edy’s front yard. It all goes down smoothly and without much in the way of surprises. The most memorable bits are Luis Guzmán’s turn as a family friend who’s a vain, middle-aged player and some odd bits of cultural specificity, like when his siblings refer to Mauricio’s future mixed-race kids as “Sorta Ricans.”
The one true distinguishing mark of Nothing Like the Holidays is the physically and emotionally scarred presence of Jesse at the festivities. On paper, this tormented, guilt-ridden character would seem likely to put a damper on the movie’s Christmas cheer. Yet director Alfredo de Villa handles this delicate subplot with a sensitive touch, and the diminutive, intense Rodríguez gives a finely calibrated performance – visibly numbed by the family chatter, Jesse snaps to alertness and joins in the laughter when something funny happens to somebody else. Because of their work, this character exists in all his full-blooded suffering without overwhelming the cozy comedy going on around him. It’s a near-miraculous achievement for this otherwise cookie-cutter movie. ‘Tis the season to celebrate small wonders.