Bitter divorces and flings with young women; unforeseen pregnancy and unemployment; rehab and illness and negligent kids ... these are a few of its favorite things. Actor/director Edward Burns again hops behind the camera for The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, a holiday-centered drama that focuses on reconciliation of past transgressions and the importance of the family bond during that most wonderful time of the year. There's something worth commending in Burns' ability to pull authentic performances from his actors within a dense network of sibling and parental connections, a testament to his capability as a director. However, it's hard to take it in earnest with such a laundry list of melodramatic problems hampering the lives of the Fitzgeralds -- namely father issues -- manufacturing too many Lifetime Channel-caliber crises to juggle while underlining how the spirit of the season triumphs over some of 'em.
Without a family leader to arrange things due to bad blood involving his negligent father, restaurant manager Gerry (Edward Burns) takes it upon himself to gather his brothers and sisters together for his mother's (Anita Gillette) pre-Christmas birthday celebration. One problem leads to another, though, between domestic squabbles and a general lack of desire to be around one another, leaving Gerry in the lurch as each of his siblings endure complications leading up to the holidays. While making social rounds, he meets Nora (Connie Britton), a nurse whom he shows a romantic interest in, a new situation considering his own personal tragedy. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas tracks Gerry and each of his siblings as they deal with their personal issues -- relationships with much older and younger flames, messy divorces, pregnancy, joblessness, drug addiction, wanting more from life -- alongside a more significant, universal one: their wayward father, Jim (Ed Lauter), has decided he wants to spend Christmas with them, clashing with his mother's adamant feelings toward her ex-husband.
There's a tolerable stripped-down holiday drama somewhere at the center of The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, involving a doting older brother dealing with his resistant siblings while trying to reconcile differences with their father for a significant Christmas celebration. Coupled with the restrained but inviting chemistry between Edward Burns and Connie Britton as a depiction of a guy who's lost his wife and wants to get back in the saddle with someone right, a far simpler and earnest story could be told here. Burns aims for more than that, though, instead focusing on how the Fitzgeralds' once-patriarch twisted all their perspectives on relationships, both romantic and within their large family, in various ways that made them all slightly off-kilter; some are detached and disgruntled, while others tolerate abuse and fail to see the good in front of them.
It's an overly-ambitious endeavor that would've been far simpler had there been, say, half the number of brothers and sisters to bequeath with issues.
Unfortunately, the handful of subplots and divergent character focuses in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas make it feel like a scatterbrained mess overstuffed with superfluous melodrama, as if Edward Burns couldn't decide which passed-down parental issues to focus on and, instead, just tossed them all in for good measure. While the performances from everyone involved never grow unconvincing -- a testament to solid casting choices in selecting feasible siblings with a mix of timidity, protectiveness, and passion -- they're working with such an unlikely batch of concurrent issues that it gets strenuous to follow. It doesn't help that most of the Fitzgerald clan can be selfish and downright unlikable; it's bizarre to hear Gerry's brothers and sisters comment on his attitude when theirs are, oftentimes, more unbearable. Particularly, it's Connie (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Quinn's (Michael McGlone) trip to the Hamptons with their respective older, wealthy guy and younger potential bride-to-be that crashes and burns, the ordeal taking a predictable yet nonsensical turn while they're willfully secluded from family.
Resentment toward the Fitzgeralds' father run consistently throughout Mr. Burns' film, yet it's only once Jim reveals his reasons for choosing this Christmas to create a stir -- yeah, it's about what you'd expect -- that The Fitzgerald Family Christmas becomes frustratingly overstated and fixated on catharsis over the holidays. There's nothing subtle about it, either: the family's ugliness spills out in appalling ways, while their personal issues mushroom out of control as the day approaches. Tones revolving around physical abuse, mortality, and regret pigeonhole the film's emotional purposes towards that tidy, obvious resolution expected of a holiday drama, though, struggling for genuineness while the family makes its decisions as the dust settles from their other problems. Director Burns tries to deliver something akin to Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale by using a combination of tragedy and holiday obligation to air out a family's dirty laundry, but it ends up feeling insincere and trite once the Fitzgeralds finally lift their glasses in holiday cheer.
Video and Audio:
Not a ton of liveliness going on in the cinematography of The Fitzgerald's Family Christmas, which sports intentionally muted, tan-leaning colors within its 2.35:1-framed anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's a suitable treatment of the material from Magnolia Home Entertainment, though: textures in wood and clothing appear tangible and natural, while the contrast levels stay conscientious of details in both exterior sunlight and by the pleasant glow of interior Christmas lights. A few close-ups do illustrate the disc's capability with finer details and skin tones (several shots of Nora, aimed at focusing on a sympathetic face, do so brilliantly), while only a few sequences are limited by a somewhat murky rendering of features. Overall, though, it captures the flickers of the holiday setting with grace while concentrating on what matters: preserving the quality of the characters' interactions.
There's little to discuss about the 5.1 Dolby Digital track: it competently focuses on the dialogue, calm conversations and arguments alike, with no discernible distortion and a fine capacity for keeping it sounding natural. As far as I could tell, though, aside from a few driving effects, nothing really leaves the front channels, though there's some nice separation at the front that's satisfactory. The only sound elements that shake things up a bit are the stumbling of trash cans and the clank of glasses, which get the job done without being particularly noteworthy. For the film's purposes, it gets across the finish line without any stumbles hindering its journey to Christmas day.
Despite not feeling enthusiastic about Edward Burns' script itself, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas does showcase a lot of promise in his abilities as a director, which this Audio Commentary with him further proves. He candidly discusses getting the film made and calling in favors for locations, little easter eggs about elements he dropped in the production, operating around the film's tone and purposes, and especially about the range of actors across the entire film. Burns stays enthusiastic, composed, and engaged in informing those watching, and inherently makes one further appreciate the effort put into the production.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas also arrives with a pared-down, family-friendly PG-13 Rated Cut, chopping off nearly ten minutes in the process.
A decent holiday drama about forgiveness, reconciliation, and coping with the problems with one's upbringing exists somewhere within Edward Burns' The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, but it loses its way amid far too much melodrama that conveniently erupts at the same time. While it's understood that these kinds of things seem to happen around Christmastime, there's simply too much ruckus to take seriously among the slightly-damaged good among the Fitzgerald clan, where each of the siblings' issues could encompass its own overcooked TV-movie tearjerker. With a little willful persistence and tolerance of some of the Fitzgeralds' unlikable nature, one might find the meaningfulness in Gerry's pursuits -- towards his siblings, his parents, and towards Nora -- as their experiences chaotically bring them closer to a holiday reunion and to a cathartic point involving their past. Rent It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site