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Page 22 THE VILLADOM TIMES I, II, III & IV • December 24, 2008 Holiday season brings out family problems by Dennis Seuling Everyone has a holiday movie favorite, and there is cer- tainly no dearth of holiday-themed movies. Some are broad comedies, others are based on classic stories, and some are showcases for stars. Few, however, feature ensemble acting of the caliber exhibited in “Nothing Like the Holidays,” directed by Alfredo De Villa. It’s Christmas time, and the grown Rodriguez children -- Mauricio (John Leguizamo), Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), and Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) -- have come back to their parents’ home in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago to celebrate with their parents, Edy and Anna (Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Pena). Jesse has just completed a tour of duty in Iraq, where he was wounded, and Mauricio is accompanied by his wife, Sarah (Debra Messing), a high-powered New York executive. Almost from the moment the Puerto Rican-American family reunites, however, conflict rears its head as Anna announces she is going to divorce Edy. In assorted side stories, we learn why Jesse is quiet and introspective in a family that prides itself on outshouting each other, why Anna is suspicious of Sarah, how Roxanna is faring in her acting career in California, and how all have ties to the old neighborhood that are hard to shake. “Nothing Like the Holidays” has the misfortune of being released against higher-profile pictures with bigger stars and larger budgets. But it should not be overlooked, since it is that rare movie that focuses on average people in inter- esting ways, illustrating that drama exists in all families. Director De Villa has succeeded wonderfully in making his cast a well-oiled ensemble, with a particularly memorable dinner scene. As the Rodriguez family sits down to dinner, everyone is speaking at the same time. When Sarah -- the only “out- sider” -- asks Mauricio why everyone is fighting, he smiles and explains that they are not fighting. It’s conversation. In the real world, multiple conversations at the dining table happen all the time. But on film, it’s difficult to coordinate all the cross-conversations and make them look spontane- ous. The scene is completely believable, and rather than going for gags, lets the humor emerge naturally, whether through good-natured r ibbing, the joy of having the family together, or old-fashioned holiday cheer. Freddy Rodriguez, who played an undertaker in the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” is particularly good as Jesse, a man haunted by tragedy in Iraq, resentful of his own missed opportunities at home, and uneasy at his father’s hope that he will take over the running of his local grocery store. Many of his scenes are played with reactions rather than pages of dialogue. Jesse holds a lot inside and it takes a lot for him to release pent-up emotions. Rodriguez makes the audience care about Jesse, wonder about why home feels so foreign to him, and long to know more about his history. He is an excellent actor, and it is great to see him in a large, pivotal role. Messing, fairly quiet in the earlier scenes, when the Rodriguez family first reunites, plays Sarah as an observer. She is not a blood relative and seems uncomfortable at a party she feels she has crashed. The tension between Sarah and Anna further isolates her, with husband Mauricio her only consolation. Later in the film, however, Sarah becomes a trusted keeper of a Big Secret and a true family member as she gets involved with her in-laws and relaxes. Molina, as the family patriarch, is also first-rate and natural. His Edy loves sitting at the head of the table, his children surrounding him, enjoying the holiday. Pena’s Anna, too, registers true as an independent, strong-willed woman, unafraid to speak her mind, who -- after 36 years of marriage -- decided she wants a divorce. Melonie Diaz plays Marissa, the one-time girlfriend of Jesse, who left her abruptly to enlist in the army. Marissa has moved on, never understanding Jesse’s abandonment of her. Yet despite the passage of years she still cares for him. When she confronts Jesse, he reveals information he does not even share with his family. The beauty of the film is that, though humorous, it never deteriorates into a sitcom. The family members are flawed, but never caricatures. All are solidly crafted characters, and it is easy to identify with many of the feelings they express. The Best Got Better! 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Mauricio, Roxanna, and Jesse all gather to get away from various troubles and rekindle the com- fortable give and take of siblings, almost as if they have never been separated. Here, away from Mom and Pop, they can let pretense down and confide in one another, knowing what they say will be kept among them. Rated PG-13, “Nothing Like the Holidays” is a true family film in that it shows how, when faced with crisis, family members will put aside their resentments, squabbles, and personal issues and pull together to work things out. KIRKERS INN OPEN CHRISTMAS EVE Closed Christmas Day OPEN NEW YEAR’S EVE OPEN NEW YEAR’S DAY at 3 pm Special Holiday Menu & Regular Menu Available Reservations Suggested 237 Diamond Bridge Ave, Hawthorne 973-427-7700 • All Major Credit Cards Open Mon. - Sat 11:30 - 11:30• Closed Sunday