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Something Like An Interfaith Family

Because Nothing Like the Holidays is the first mainstream Latino Christmas film, it tries to be all things to all people: a family drama and a feel-good comedy. Director Alfredo De Villa is working with an excellent cast of Latino actors but the team of screenwriters has made a mush of the mix of serious issues, romance and gags in this "dramedy." Though the movie provides some welcome glimpses of Puerto Rican life in the United States, a subplot involving one brother's interfaith marriage with a Jewish woman is only one aspect of the film that doesn't realize its full potential.

The film tells the story of the Rodriguez family returning for Christmas to visit their parents in the Puerto Rican enclave of Humboldt Park in Chicago. Jesse (Freddie Rodriguez) is back from Iraq. He's coming home to his luminous if irritable mother Anna (Elizabeth Pena), sad-eyed father Edy (Alfred Molina), sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), brother Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and Mauricio's Jewish wife, Sarah (Debra Messing). Jesse has a fetching scar under one eye and some war stories he's not yet ready to tell.

Nothing Like the Holidays
Elizabeth Pena, John Leguizamo and Debra Messing in a tense early scene in Nothing Like the Holidays.

Roxanna, a sultry actress back from Los Angeles for the first time in three years, is waiting for a call from her agent about a TV role. Rox is a local legend: her picture is up in the bar, and the neighborhood guys tease her about her sexy delivery of her one line in a commercial--"sabroso!" What they don't know, though, is how stuck her life feels, and how hard it is for her to make the rent and car payments. And no sooner has she arrived then she and tattooed Ozzy, a former gang member, begin exchanging amorous glances.

The interfaith couple in Nothing Like the Holidays serves mainly as a cultural contrast to the other characters. Mauricio, the oldest, has gone to New York and made lots of money, but his mother can't stop nagging his wife about the grandchildren she wants. Mauricio's on Sarah's case about kids as well. Mauricio's upward mobility seems to have robbed him of the horse sense of the rest of his family; he's a clueless know-it-all in a suit. Sarah's uptight and soft-spoken, well-intentioned (she's teaching herself to cook Puerto Rican food off the Internet) but, at least at first, she lacks the free-spirited energy of the rest of the Rodriguez clan.

This kind of cross-section of class and culture has potential, but the way illness, gang warfare and the Iraq war push us from plot point to plot point here feels cheesy, unearned. What's strongest in Nothing Like the Holidays isn't what actually happens in the plot, it's the scenes where people are just hanging out, like the one where siblings in the attic discuss their parents' impending divorce. De Villa, who has made a string of small dramas often focusing on Latino life, has a nice feel for same-sex friendships--Jesse's friends clowning around with him as they drive him home from the airport; Rox and Marisa bringing each other up to date on their lives. The dance party where, fueled by music and alcohol, Sarah and Mauricio finally break out has a lovely loose feel. And the parranda, a caroling parade through the snowy neighborhood that picks up new singers at each house, could go on much longer than it does.

And the camera loves these actors. Rodriguez, with his endearing vulnerability and fledgling crewcut, is blurred, shot in soft focus in his scenes with his father, Molina's expressions incisive as Greek sculpture. It's refreshing, too, to see the camera linger over Pena as a still marvelously attractive older woman, radiating a self-contained, almost spiritual, sensuality.

Messing and Leguizamo
Some good chemistry between Messing and Leguizamo.

Messing's supposedly Jewish Sarah is another story, though. Instead of bringing another culture into the mix, Sarah is portrayed as a stereotypically uptight career woman, who has to order takeout because she can't cook. As the loud talk overlaps in Spanish, she asks Mauricio "What are they fighting about?" "Nothing," he replies, "They're conversating." It's sadly ironic that these filmmakers seem to have missed many actual similarities of Jewish and Latino cultures--what a difference a generation makes! Have they never heard of the Jewish dinner tables loud with passionate conversation, Jewish grandmothers who pride themselves on their strudels and kugels, Jewish mothers just as urgent as Anna is for grandchildren?

Since she brings no Jewish beliefs or culture to la mesa, Sarah is a tabula rasa, working hard to fit in--practicing Christmas carols as she folds laundry, learning to put garlic cloves in the fresh ham. It's not a question of faith, really, for the Rodriguez family isn't exactly portrayed as Christian. In fact, Mauricio's attempt to heal his parents' rift by inviting the priest to dinner is shown as laughable. What they believe in is love, peace, family, emotional honesty and celebration--ideally with lots of beer, cuchifritos and salsa (both kinds).

You can't fault them (or the filmmakers) for that, even if the feel-good resolutions often come at the cost of women's traditional sacrifices. Anna decides to stay on with Edy, Rox gives up her acting career to move back home with Ozzy, Sarah decides to get pregnant ASAP because "life is short." In fact, Mauricio's Christmas gift to her is--a christening gown for their baby! "You don't really expect us to Bar Mitzvah the kid?" he asks, incredulous, while Anna sternly affirms that there are Puerto Rican Jews.

Sarah's kindness, discretion and openness to the culture of her in-laws ultimately earn her the loving acceptance of this family. But what about where she's come from, where does that fit in? Sure, this is a comedy, but any interfaith couple who's had even one conversation about each partner's backgrounds and beliefs will find themselves light years ahead of the folks in Nothing Like the Holidays.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah."

Monica Raymond is an award-winning playwright and poet based in Cambridge, Mass. She's hoping for a quiet holiday this season, but leaving some room for sisters, friends, and latkes.

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