There's no shortage of warmth in Nothing Like The Holidays, a rambunctious Christmas comedy-drama featuring a who's-who of Latino talent, including Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Peña, Freddy Rodríguez, John Leguizamo, Luis Guzmán, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, Vanessa Ferlito, and Debra Messing. (Okay, strike that last one.) It also features no shortage of clichés. Everyone in the cast looks like they're having the time of their lives, and the Humboldt Park, Chicago setting has a specificity and flavor that carries through everything from the storefronts to the food. Yet they're constantly at war with the damning conventions of the holiday-movie subgenre, which turn what might have been a 90-minute party into a loud, hoary, melodramatic calamity. Why does Christmas have to be so shouty?
As a boisterous family packs into their modest two-story for the holidays, they bring enough baggage to sabotage a decade's worth of seasonal get-togethers. Everyone gets a subplot: Patriarch Molina is on the outs with hot-tempered wife Peña, who suspects he's having an affair; Rodríguez comes home from a tour of duty in Iraq battle-weary, and unprepared to see his ex-girlfriend Diaz with another man; would-be actress Ferlito has the neighborhood proudly trumpeting her as the next big star, but she's floundered in Hollywood; and urban fast-trackers Leguizamo and Messing face open hostility for putting off having children in order to pursue their careers. (Note to Messing: If you want to make your mother-in-law happy, don't show up at her house yapping into a Bluetooth.)
In the middle of it all, there's a big, symbolic tree in front of the house—old and gnarled, blocking the view, yet unbowed by tow truck, chainsaw, or power tools. It's like this family, you see. Nothing Like The Holidays would have been much better off without the tree, which isn't to say the family should disband, but that the movie doesn't need clunky metaphors and manufactured conflicts. Take a cue from Guzmán, who serves as a kind of court jester, bouncing in and out of scenes in a one-man quest to bring levity to the occasion. The movie could stand to have more of his Christmas cheer; instead, it's a recast Family Stone.