Holiday dramas and sentimentality go together like eggnog and rum; why bother making the former if you’re not going to indulge in a little of the latter? If a movie is going to gather a group of squabbling relations and put them through their dysfunctional paces, it may as well happen at Christmas time, when the rooms can be lit festively, carols make for good mood music and cheerful decorations balance the grim work of characters trying not to hate those who share their DNA.
That said, Edward Burns’ new film, though ultimately designed to make you misty, has much more going for it than against it. Burns, who nailed the dynamics of an Irish American family in The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One, has an ear and an eye for the way brothers and sisters talk to each other, and the conversations in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas — some murmured, others shouted — carry the pleasant ring of authenticity.
The seven adult siblings in the film are debating whether to allow their wayward father (Ed Lauter) to spend Christmas with them for the first time in 20 years. The biggest roadblock to this plan is their no-nonsense Irish Catholic mother (Anita Gillette), who has no interest in forgiveness or doing anything nice for the lout who abandoned her. She’s no victim; she’s the sort of tough-minded grandma who sneaks her half Jewish grandchild off for a secret baptism.
Front and center of this battle is Gerry (Burns), the favorite son who runs the family restaurant and lives with his ma for reasons Burns explains in surprisingly subtle ways. Gerry drives his siblings crazy with his bossy attempts to get them in the same room at the same time to discuss the situation. But gathering the various Fitzgeralds is as impossible as herding cats. They’ve all got personal issues to deal with: separations; inappropriate affairs; new relationships; spousal abuse; rehab; surprise pregnancies; secrets. And because this is a family holiday movie, you can rest assured someone is going to announce a life-threatening illness at some point. It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but just because you’ve hauled out the holly doesn’t mean life won’t go on in its usual messy way.
There isn’t much more to the story than the question of whether Dad will be allowed to come home, and even that is never in much doubt. But Burns is always likable — he’s at his best directing himself and playing this essentially good-hearted guy — and he has the presence of mind to cast Connie Britton (Nashville, Friday Night Lights) as a love interest for himself. The rest of the cast brings these lively, flawed characters to life, making their relationships feel real whether they’re warm or prickly or protective.
“Big families are overrated,” one exasperated sister says to her husband when she confides that she’s happy having just one child. “Especially yours,” he replies with a smile. But that’s not true. These Fitzgeralds are loud, selfish and often maddening, but they’re a loving group, and you wouldn’t mind spending more time with them.
Cast: Edward Burns, Connie Britton, Michael McGlone, Kerri Bishe, Anita Gillette, Ed Lauter.
Writer/director: Edward Burns.
Producers: Edward Burns, Aaron Lubin, William Rexer.
Running time: 99 minutes. Playing in Miami-Dade: Cosford; Broward: Cinema Paradiso.