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SEASONAL STUFFING: John Leguizamo passes the turkey in 'Nothing Like the Holidays.'

Holiday Twist

'Nothing Like the Holidays': like 'Home for the Holidays,' only Puerto Rican

By Richard von Busack

THE SAME OLD holiday turkey, only served with sofrito, Nothing Like the Holidays gives you the big warning right away in the strangely forgettable title. What like the holidays? Nothing what the holidays? Nothing like the what? There's no percentage in beating up a movie like this; you just file it under Central Americana and don't expect to see it again until next year at this time. The odd part is that the presenters aren't hopeless. Director Alejandro De Villa isn't a novice, co-writer Rick Najera is reputedly a well-known Latino playwright and the cast has distinction. It's just that the setup has been done so frequently that the only differences this time are the cultural references. It takes more than name-checking cuchifritos, coconut-rum drinks and the impending sainthood of Roberto Clemente to give this movie anything more than synthetic life.

Jesse (producer Freddy Rodriguez) returns from Iraq in his Marines camouflage uniform to his neighborhood in Chicago; he has troubling but not disabling memories from the war and a rakish scar circling his eye. Waiting for him at the Christmas table are his mother, Anna (Elizabeth Peña), and his father, Eduardo (Alfred Molina). Dad runs a successful bodega that's something like a community center; it's an idealized market of shticks and ticks, with jolly cashiers and comedic relief. Jesse's elder brother, Mauricio (John Leguizamo), is an affluent New Yorker married to a hedge fund executive, Sarah (Debra Messing). This female executive is brittle and businesslike (and Jewish). She's resisting the family's (repeated) call to settle down and pop out some children. In the gross-clown role, Luis Guzmán, this movie's most frequently redeeming quality, refers to Sarah's offspring-to-bes as "sorta Ricans." Added to the mix is sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) who has been in L.A. trying to pursue an acting career.

It turns out that Eduardo is concealing a secret, apparently an affair. Anna announces at the dinner table that she's going to divorce her husband, and the holidays are overshadowed by this calamity and various subplots. Finally, the ensemble comes together for the Christmas holiday parranda, a Puerto Rican flag-waving, caroling processional. It's the lone really cinematic moment in a movie that could otherwise and ought to have been made for television. Speaking of which, jokes about the ridiculous situations in television soap-operas shouldn't be dropped when we see the soapy nature of Eduardo's secret. The best lines in this movie refer to other movies, such as Rocky, Black Hawk Down and Taxi Driver, and that tells you something about its derivativeness. The troubled and apparently unfaithful father is symbolized by an indomitable, gnarled and apparently dying tree; the family means to chop it down, but the tree resists all efforts to be cut or pulled down. You can live with that kind of elementary-school symbolism, but not when a character jokes that Dad is like that tree.

Movie Times NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS (PG-13), directed by Alfredo De Villa, written by Alison Swan and Rick Najera, photographed by Scott Kevan and starring Freddy Rodriguez and Elizabeth Peña, opens Dec. 12.

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