Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and proud ethnic enclaves, none more proud than the Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park. A tall iron Puerto Rican flag straddles Division Avenue just west of Western Avenue, ushering motorists down the main drag through the neighborhood and leaving no doubt about the heritage of the local residents. If there was any doubt, show up on Puerto Rican National Day, when the area's streets are transformed into a kind of merry-go-round by flag-festooned cars touring the neighborhood and blaring their horns. I used the live in the middle of it all, three blocks from the flag.
Nothing Like the Holidays uses this rich cultural backdrop as a stage for its tale of a Puerto Rican family reuniting at Christmastime. The Rodriguez clan converges at the home of parents Eddy and Anna to celebrate the safe return of the youngest son, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), from combat in Iraq. Sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) flies in from LA where she's struggling to get traction as an actress, and big brother Mauricio (John Leguizamo) flies in from New York where he's on the verge of becoming a partner in a big-time law firm. Being back in Humboldt Park makes the siblings take stock of their lives since leaving home. And when Anna announces she's leaving Eddy, lingering regrets and fears about the future surge to the surface.
So much dramatic texture, not to mention comedic potential! But like a flan that falls flat, Nothing Like the Holidays fails to deliver on its tasty promise.
The movie seems to be caught in a kind of limbo between conventional holiday fare, complete with sight gags and sleigh bells, and a more sober look at issues as serious as the consequences of wartime decisions, revenge killings, and terminal illness. It would be tricky, but it's conceivable that a movie could hit all the right notes and pull these things together into one gift-wrapped package, but it doesn't quite happen here. I cringed when Iraq vet Jesse told his ex-girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) about a decision he made on the battlefield that resulted in a buddy's death instead of his own. The moment plays like a desperate, childish attempt to elicit sympathyfrom the girl and the audience. The girl turned around, but I would've kept walking.
Perhaps that's a little harsh. I liked the Rodriguez family and their pasteles and loud dinnertime conversation and cozy neighborhood. Mauricio's wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), is also a corporate big wig from New York, and her outsider status provides a comical straight man to the family's antics. And there are lovely moments of tenderness and sacrifice that demonstrate the genuine bonds between these people. The beauty and importance of community is a resonant theme throughout.
The film was produced by the same people behind Barbershop, a comedy set on Chicago's South Side that I would argue did a better job of melding laughs with more serious matters. And director Alfredo DeVilla is perhaps best known for his work on the well-received Washington Heights, an independent drama that features a similar ethnic enclave in New York City.
Nothing Like the Holidays has Humboldt Park in its corner. But in the end, the laughs aren't quite funny enough to make you forget that the drama isn't developed enough to introduce any real tension. The movie is bland. Which is a crying shame when the source material has so much flavor.Discussion starters
- Why do you think Jesse was so reluctant to take over the family business? Have you ever felt the same way about family expectations?
- Do you think Sarah and Mauricio made the right decision about having children? Should she have made different decisions about her career? What about Mauricio's career? Should he have been willing to make sacrifices?
- Was Eddy right for keeping his secret? Why or why not?
- Was it right for Sarah to make her promise to keep Eddy's secret? Would you have been angry with her?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Nothing Like the Holidays is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some sexual dialogue, and brief drug references. There are references to losing one's virginity, some sexual innuendo, and a reference to smoking pot.
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