Simplistic and soapy, Nothing Like the Holidays nonetheless succeeds in warming the cockles. Director De Villa avoids both cynicism and treacle and starts with a level, realistic playing field, allowing the story’s heightened emotions to spring forth naturally, like fresh greenery poking through the blacktop.
Set in chilly Chicago, the story revolves around a loud, loving family of Puerto Ricans (played by a dream cast) who assemble for Christmas. Buttoned-up and bespectacled Mauricio (Leguizamo) and his thin, white wife Sarah (Messing), arrive from New York. Struggling sexpot actress Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito, from Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof) arrives from Hollywood. And prodigal son Jesse (Rodríguez) comes home scarred but intact from Iraq. Dad (Molina) happily runs the family store, while mom (Elizabeth Peña) cooks and badgers her offspring for grandchildren. An uncouth cousin (Luis Guzmán) and other family friends round out the gathering.
Creaky dramas erupt: mom announces she wants a divorce, Jesse pines after his former flame Marissa (Melonie Diaz), and Roxanna is waiting for news on a part. And, of course, someone has cancer and is hiding it from the rest of the family. Yet it’s remarkable how well De Villa sorts through and balances these threads, reveling in their natural messiness and not even bothering to tidy them all up at the end. The group chemistry has a lot to do with the film’s success; everyone is boisterous and crude, but ultimately open and honest, and they all feel right together. Even Messing manages to sidestep her usual hectic, jerky style and finds something more human. It’s surprisingly easy to get sucked into this daytime drama, albeit guiltily and gleefully.