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By Stina Chyn | December 14, 2008

There are nights when I devour a film, slipping myself into the characters and their failures and successes. On other nights, however, I prefer to sink into the chair and watch a group of characters go about their lives and not concern myself with whether or not I can empathize with them. “Nothing Like the Holidays,” conceived by Robert Teitel and Rene M. Rigal and written by Alison Swan and Rick Najera, allows me to look and not be entrenched.

Directed by Alfredo De Villa, “Nothing Like the Holidays” puts a spotlight on the Rodriguez family and how its members spend the last week of December. The film commences with the three Rodriguez children, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), and Mauricio (John Leguizamo) returning home and each from a different geographical and psychological place. Jesse has come back from Iraq with minor physical injury and a heavy mental burden; Roxanna has flown back from Los Angeles with an acting career on the brink of dissipating before it really even began; and lawyer Mauricio and his Wall Street wife Sarah (Debra Messing) return with mutually acknowledged differences in opinion regarding professional advancement and starting a family.

The Rodriguez parents, Edy (Alfred Molina) and Anna (Elizabeth), also have information to share with their kids, and neither of them knows what the other one wishes to tell….until that is one night at dinner when Anna declares that she is going to divorce Edy. The rest of “Nothing Like the Holidays” consists of a few confessions, one pretty big revelation, a cameo by America’s Next Top Model winner Jaslene from season eight, and a neighborhood Christmas caroling expedition that is as close to a ‘real-life’ musical number (spontaneous singing and orchestral accompaniment) as characters could participate in without being in a musical film. Incorporated into the nuclear family drama are cousin Johnny (Luis Guzman) for comic relief, family friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) for subplot, and Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz) for wisdom.

Although the characters talk out their troubles and confront the relevant parties, the editing makes me feel as though I’m in the room observing every scowl and act of reconciliation as they occur but am not allowed to speak. On the one hand, the quasi-omnipresence sets me safely in the voyeur’s corner. On the other hand, though, there are moments when I really wanted to pause the Rodriguez family’s conversations and throw in my two cents. For seventy to eighty minutes out of ninety-nine, “Nothing Like the Holidays” provides mostly entertaining spectacle. It’s only when the ending credits roll that I realize I wanted to know more about a couple of the characters but the film wouldn’t be able to oblige.

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