Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)

NLTHTruth be told I’m not too surprised that “Nothing Like the Holidays” has become an obscure holiday film in spite of doing everything right in terms of holiday films. It’s called “Nothing like The Holidays” for a broader appeal, considering most Puerto Rican families celebrate Christmas strictly, and yet it’s still a shelf filler after its release in theaters because let’s face it, there’s not a Caucasian face among the cast. America loves the plight of the American family filled with blondes and brunettes while something like “Nothing Like the Holidays” which is essentially a film about a family trying to deal with their demons and unrequited emotions, is pushed to the wayside.

There’s not a single Caucasian persuasion in the cast aside from Debra Messing (for broad appeal, obviously) who we’re consistently told is a Hispanic woman. But we know better than that. “Nothing Like the Holidays” is the type of ensemble dramedy that I always wanted to see, a film about the Puerto Rican family coming together on Christmas to deal with their lives and face some hardships. True, none of my Christmases involved a lush house, and plenty of food, but it’s a very entertaining glimpse in to a Puerto Rican family, all of whom have to deal with their new lives at the cusp of a new year. Compiling an incredible ensemble cast of some of the best Hispanic actors in Hollywood, director Alfredo De Villa completely breaks away every cliché and stereotype in the book to portray a typical lower middle class Puerto Rican family, all faced with turmoil in their lives that could bring them together or split them apart for good.

Remaining truly relevant to the plight of the Hispanic family, the cast represents every form of the Hispanic individual in America, most of whom are looking for a purpose in this world, and struggling to find fulfillment in their lives that doesn’t entirely involve adhering to the social norms that would be demanded from the Puerto Rican male or female concerning gang members and drugs. DeVilla definitely doesn’t reduce the characters to stereotypes, but he’s not above creating a far-fetched idea of the Puerto Rican family, exploring their unusual in-jokes, their capacity for having conversations that sound like loud arguments (been there), and their odd rituals applied toward making food.

Villa is perfectly capable of doling out individually compelling sub-plots for every single member of the cast, particularly for cast member John Leguizamo who is memorable as the successful oldest brother Mauricio who is watching the family he knew fall apart before his eyes and does nothing but run away and struggle to fool himself in to thinking family life is still the same when he was a child. Freddy Rodriguez is excellent as the war veteran Jesse who copes with his new environment begrudgingly and must deal with the impending marriage of his ex-girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz is graceful in this supporting performance), all the while folks like Vanessa Ferlito, Luis Guzman, and Jay Hernandez respectively add some much appreciated support as family members who watch the chaos from a distance and must keep up the morale. I especially love Guzman as uncle Johnny, the eccentric unofficial uncle of the family.

The weight of the film is held by Elizabeth Pena and Alfred Molina who are very charming as the long lasting parents of their large brood who have their own secrets that promise to bring their children to their knees. The writing team of Rick Najera, Ted Perkins, and Alison Swan really do pay respect to the culture and the bonds that bring family closely, and stick true to the spirit of the piece. “Nothing Like the Holidays” is free of the typical Hollywood conventions of the average Hispanic American, and for once it’s fun to see an ensemble holiday film revolving around the average Puerto Rican family, instead of yet another middle class “American” family we’ve seen a thousand times over. I swell with pride at this film as it’s a respectable and thoroughly entertaining exploration of the bonds of a tightly knit large Puerto Rican family, and their coping with maturity, relationships and potentially tragic events. Free of clichés and plot devices, this is an ensemble film I highly suggest for any audience in the spirit for something completely different.