There are no ingredients in Nothing Like the Holidays that you're not already familiar with from other big-crazy-family Christmas movies. Then again, so what? The Christmas breakfast my mom makes every year never has anything new either -- in fact, there would be open rebellion if it did -- and that suits everyone just fine.
Nothing Like the Holidays is warm and comfortable in that way, mostly pleasant, mostly well acted, and moderately entertaining. Directed by Alfredo De Villa (Washington Heights), it boasts a luminous ensemble of Latino actors as two generations of Puerto Ricans living in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. It captures the cultural flavor of their yuletide festivities and intra-family squabbling without being so specific that non-Latino audiences can't appreciate it. Details aside, anyone with a family can relate to most of what happens here.
What happens is that the Rodriguez family gathers for Christmas. Edy (Alfred Molina) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña), married for 36 years, own a neighborhood bodega and eagerly anticipate the reunion of their three children. Their oldest, Mauricio (John Leguizamo), is married to a Jewish girl, Sarah (Debra Messing), and they both work for a law firm in New York. The youngest, Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), has been trying to break into showbiz in Hollywood. The middle child, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), is a Marine who has been discharged after three years in Iraq, just in time for the holidays. Buffoonish lothario and electronics store owner Cousin Johnny (Luis Guzman) is there, too, and so is Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), a former thug who now works for Edy.
After about 20 minutes of lighthearted banter and joviality -- all of which feels authentic, like we've been invited to a place at the Rodriguez family table -- the little dramas begin to unfold. The main one: Anna suddenly wants a divorce from Edy, who she believes has cheated on her. The other dramas, some more dramatic than others, include Mauricio and Sarah's disagreement on when to have a baby and Jesse's interaction with his ex-girlfriend, Marissa (Melonie Diaz), who at one point was almost part of the family.
I'm a little surprised that the screenplay, credited to Alison Swan and Rick Najera, with producers Robert Teitel and Rene M. Rigal getting story credit, took so many brains to write. The plot itself is basic, and none of the dialogue is particularly witty or memorable. On the bright side, at least none of it is particularly stupid or groan-worthy.
What makes the film work, at least modestly, is the spirit of camaraderie and familiarity among the cast members. The relationships feel natural. Elizabeth Peña may only be three years older than John Leguizamo, but I believe their mother-son connection. I buy that Freddy Rodriguez could be Alfred Molina's pride and joy, that the old man could want the younger one to take over the family business. When the three siblings gather in the attic late one night to drink tequila and talk about their parents, you get a sense of their shared history, and of the shorthand that family members use to express their feelings.
There are three or four movies like this every holiday season, some good, some bad, some spawned from hell itself (the Broderick/De Vito abomination Deck the Halls, for example). Nothing Like the Holidays will not become a perennial favorite; it will probably be forgotten in a few weeks. But it's an honest, friendly movie, and infinitely more human than, say, Four Christmases. It deserves credit for that.