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Maggie Elizabeth Jones
A Latino Family Christmas Well Cast But the Story Is Mired in Clichés
If you can envision mixing Thomas Bezucha's "The Family Stone" (2005) with Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" (still running on Broadway), you will get a rough idea of what this 2008 family drama is all about. It's refreshing to see a holiday feature focused on the vibrancy of the Hispanic community, and director Alfredo De Villa does an energetic job celebrating the ethnicity found in Chicago's Puerto Rican-dominated Humboldt Park neighborhood. However, he gets little help from the by-the-numbers screenplay by Rick Najera and Alison Swan, which is mired in clichés and stock characters. The story works strictly within predictable convention by using a Christmas family reunion as an excuse for melodramatic revelations and confrontations among its members.
The plot elements are laid on thick. The Rodriguez family is headed by jovial bodega owner Edy, whose recently secretive behavior has convinced his hot-tempered wife Emma that he is having an affair. She unceremoniously announces at the family dinner table that she wants to file for a divorce. Oldest son Mauricio has become a smug, rather insufferable New Yorker and brings with him his high-powered wife Sarah, an uptight gringo on the verge of managing her own $300 million hedge fund. Much to Emma's chagrin, they have decided to put off having children to focus on their careers. Looking battle-weary and acting disengaged, younger son Jesse has just come home from a tour of duty in Iraq to find his ex-girlfriend settled down with another man. Daughter Roxanna is a struggling actress in LA whom the neighborhood thinks is going to be the next big star. Her life gets complicated by a budding romance with ex-gang member Ozzy, who is tormented by the shooting death of his brother. And as if it isn't obvious, an old, ugly tree in the Rodriguez front yard stands as a symbol of the family's solidarity.
All the characters are sketched in broad strokes rather than developed with nuance, so the film feels more suitable as a TBS TV show. Nonetheless, the cast is likable and sometimes a bit more when given the chance. Alfred Molina ("Spider-Man 2"), a Brit of Spanish-Italian ancestry, has mastered a diverse array of ethnic roles in his career and plays Edy with convincing Latino flavor. Elizabeth Peña ("Lone Star") is a welcome sight as Emma. A surprisingly restrained John Leguizamo ("Moulin Rouge!") plays Mauricio, and an unsurprising Debra Messing ("Will and Grace") plays to type as Sarah. Effective albeit limited work comes from Vanessa Ferlito ("Grindhouse") as Roxana, Jay Hernandez ("World Trade Center") as Ozzy, and Luis Guzmán providing comic relief as a jokester cousin obsessed with his hair. The film's best performance comes from Freddy Rodriguez (Federico in "Six Feet Under") who realistically conveys Jesse's pain with a minimum of help from the trite script. Paul Oakenfold contributes the percolating soundtrack. The 200 DVD offers an entertaining commentary track from De Villa, Rodriguez, and producer Robert Teitel; a 12-minute featurette that reunites some of the cast members to discuss the making of the film; the original theatrical trailer; and the inescapable blooper reel.
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