"Nothing Like the Holidays" is a Puerto Rican Christmas movie, with emphasis on the PUERTO RICAN. A flavorful banquet of yuletide neuroses, a purchase of the "Nothing" disc should come with a seat belt to best endure the roller coaster of melodrama that makes up the majority of this dramedy. It just wouldn't be Christmas if there wasn't a group of actors pushed into a room together with thin characterization, forced to fight for limited screentime.
The holidays are in full swing at the Rodriguez household, with parents Eduardo (Alfred Molina) and Anna (Elizabeth Pena) welcoming their children back to the family's Chicago dwelling for the festivities. For Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), it's his first visit home after three years serving in Iraq, reuniting with an ex-girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) who's moved on; Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) is a struggling actress afraid to reveal her failures to the family; and Mauricio (John Leguizamo) is still coming to terms with his career-minded wife (Debra Messing), and wanting to start a family at the behest of his mother. Brought together out of obligation, the weekend provides a fruitful psychological scrubbing for the family, with every guest holding a secret just aching to be revealed.
Not to be confused with the frighteningly similar "This Christmas" from 2007, "Nothing" waves its cultural heritage like a badge, spending plenty of screentime reminding the audience this is a PUERTO RICAN Christmas movie, preferably for PUERTO RICANS. The cultural divide is a little off-putting at first (along with a horde of obnoxious product plugs), but the film eventually warms to universal themes of familial distress that director Alfredo De Villa mines for adequate emotional release.
Truthfully, "Nothing" is a big red-and-green felt bag of clichés that De Villa doesn't have control over, wrestling an uneven screenplay that lurches back and forth between slapstick and sobering drama. The film is in constant tonal distress, making the viewing experience irritating at times, especially when subplots of worth are shortchanged to keep feeding bizarre strains of melodrama that emerge from out of nowhere, typically sold with uncharacteristic motivations. There's no reason for the feature to stick to a single tone for safety's sake, but the revolving door of trouble for the Rodriguez clan is exhausting, removing necessary narrative patience from the final product to offer up a plethora of trauma so the cast won't be bored. In De Villa's hands, "Nothing" is in a spectacular hurry to go nowhere.
If the filmmaking fails to a certain degree, the charisma of the performers picks up the slack. The ensemble is flat-out wonderful, embodying a semi-believable (Leguizamo is only three years younger than "mom" Pena) clan of troublemakers who use the holiday in a classic Festivus "airing of grievances" manner. Pena and Molina are the real stars here, lending the feature some needed gravitas with a manipulative divorce/hidden illness subplot that is kept in check by their extensive gifts. The "kids" are fun with the little they're allowed to do, and the group interplay is enjoyable to watch.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation on "Nothing" comes across as excessively oversaturated. Interior sequences are lacquered with a strong yellow tint that overstates the familial intentions of the photography. Skintones are pushed out of whack, and black levels are nearly devoid of any detail. Exteriors realign the color scheme, but only fleetingly.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital around mix is vigorous, boasting superb dimension for scenes of family gatherings and outdoor group shots. Of course, this is a film with every character talking at once, but the mix keeps the exchanges in order, allowing the viewer a chance to keep up with the verbal fastballs. Soundtrack selections are forceful, maintaining a nice cultural punch when the film needs it the most. A Spanish track is available as well.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
It's a lively community of happy dudes in the feature-length audio commentary, featuring actor/producer Freddy Rodriguez, director Alfredo De Villa, producer Robert Teitel, and even Luis Guzman, who shows up on a cell phone for a brief period of time. Expect lots of cheerful praise for cast and crew, since everyone has nothing but love for everything about this picture. Better is a discussion of location shooting in Chicago (including frigid weather, landmarks, and local eats), illuminating the personal touch that occasionally shines in the feature. It's personable, and possibly educational if there's no expectation of dirt. Disappointingly, De Villa references deleted scenes that are not on the DVD.
"Nothing Like a Family: Cast Reunion" (11:44) brings together Freddy Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Luis Guzman, Melonie Diaz, Vanessa Ferlito, and Jay Hernandez for a discussion of filming hijinks and cast relationships. The atmosphere is loving and jovial, with each actor recalling the special time they had making the movie, along with cracking a few good-natured jokes during the featurette.
"Bloopers" (15:03) is an extraordinarily elongated assembly of cast mix-em-ups, taking a large amount of time to spotlight fumbles and giggles from everyone in the cast. As expected, John Leguizamo and Luis Guzman are responsible for the most troublemaking. A Theatrical Trailer has been included.
"Nothing Like the Holidays" has a personality and a rowdy bunch of actors. If only the production trusted their natural charisma over plodding shovelfuls of melodrama.