'Nothing Like the Holidays' celebrates Latin XMas

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Like the plantains and empanadillas that adorn the film's Christmas dinner table, "Nothing Like the Holidays" is comfort food.

Though its title suggests uniqueness, "Nothing Like the Holidays" is exactly like most holiday films, with the notable exception of an almost entirely Latin cast.

John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez and Vanessa Ferlito play the sons and daughter of Edy (Alfred Molina) and Anna Rodriguez (Elizabeth Pena). As families are wont to do in holiday films, all have congregated for Christmas - in this case, at their home in Chicago's largely Puerto Rican neighborhood Humboldt Park.

Each brings their own problems to the table: marital troubles for Leguizamo with his gringo wife (Debra Messing), Rodriguez is just back from Iraq and Ferlito's character is a struggling actress. As you might guess, the fortunes of all will greatly improve over one trying holiday weekend.

"Nothing Like the Holidays" comes from the producers of "Soul Food," and like that film, revels in its ethnicity. Though the film apes every convention of Christmas films, it's hard to fault its sentimental conventions too much; so many holiday films have been white Christmases.

And the movie is welcoming. Occasional subtitles are flashed to help the Spanish deficient keep up.

Messing is the minority here, an uptight business woman hoping to land her own hedge fund (pre-economic collapse, one assumes). At the dinner table, she plays the overly clueless outsider, asking, "Why is everyone fighting?" only to be informed no one's fighting, they're just "conversating."

The roles are paper thin, which is too bad considering the talent of the cast. They have all been better. Molina and Leguizamo, in particular, deserve better material.

The always funny Luis Guzman does his usual enlivening schtick. Music from Paul Oakenfold also helps keep things pulsing.

Working from the simpleminded script by Rick Najera and Alison Swan, director Alfredo De Villa ("Washington Heights") - shooting on location - lets his camera linger on the kitchen cutting board, the snowy urban landscape of Humboldt Park, the traditional Christmas march through the community.

It's at these moments that one realizes "Nothing Like the Holidays" was really meant to be a documentary showing the vibrant, festive Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park. As a fictional film, though, it needs a story.

"Nothing Like the Holidays," an Overture Films release, is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some sexual dialogue and brief drug references. Running time: 98 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


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