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Nothing Like the Holidays: The Fruitcake of the Holiday Movie Season

The Christmas dramedy Nothing Like the Holidays really is like a fruitcake: Seasonal, obligatory and cliche. It's unoriginal in its presentation, but then again, it is the holidays and someone put in the effort to make it, so a part of you appreciates it a little. You just don't want to taste it ever again. And maybe another part of you is the teeniest bit resentful that you were given something so forgettable.

Having said all that, there are some refreshing aspects to this particular sweet-sour overbaked good. The plot relies heavily on that tiresome declaration of "look how totally wacky and loud we are but we are also so loving!" But at least this time it's a Puerto Rican-American family, an ethnic group that's pretty severely underrepresented in mainstream film. The adult children in the Rodriguez family are gathering together at their parents' Chicago home for Christmas, including big-time New York City lawyer Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his Jewish fish-out-of-water wife Sarah (Debra Messing), aspiring Hollywood actress Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), and soldier Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) who is just now returning from Iraq. A circle of extra players surrounds the group: cousin Johnny (Luis Guzmán), family friend with a history of gangster life Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), and Jesse's old flame (the one that got away) Marissa (Melonie Diaz) — along with her son and new boyfriend. For more on why there's just nothing like the holidays,

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The familial relationships are equal parts tension and love, anger and sweetness, cruelty and warmth. Emotions run high all the time and everyone's got some kind of drama going on. Sarah feels unfairly pressured to have kids, Roxanna fears her fledgling career in TV and film will never take off, and Ozzy is filled with rage toward the recently-sprung-from-prison guy who killed his brother. Jesse's storyline is the most intriguing, largely due to Freddy Rodriguez's wonderful onscreen charisma: Trying to adapt to civilian life again, he wonders what his purpose is and desperately wants to be with Marissa. Finally, there's the ridiculously lame plotline of the parents: Edy (the magnificent teddy-bear-dad Alfred Molina) is hiding something, Anna (Elizabeth Peña) thinks he's cheating on her and thus wants a divorce, leading the kids to think this is their last Christmas together.

All these storylines get knitted together in one big tangly ball of mess, which doesn't give any one character the space to grow beyond the one-dimensional stereotype he or she is given. The actors try mightily to counter this, however, and at times they succeed. These are heavyweight actors who are way above this material, and if there's a reason to see this movie at all, it's them. Their determination to be a part of this story is admirable, and in certain scenes they even manage to add some flavor to an otherwise bland Christmas offering. Overall, though, I'd say you can pass on this dessert — at least until it's re-gifted on TV during next year's holiday season.

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