Everybody has a favorite Christmas carol: a song that if by chance you hear it anytime during the year you'll recall wonderful winter memories of family and friends. Everybody also has a 37th favorite holiday tune: one that they never think about, but don't mind hearing when it comes on the radio some time after Thanksgiving. In that regard, Nothing Like the Holidays is more "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" than "Silent Night." For a while, director Alfredo de Villa whips up a light and enjoyable variation on the traditions of the large dysfunctional-yet-functional-family holiday film. Alfred Molina plays convenience store owner Edy, the father of the rambunctious Rodriguez clan, which includes oldest son Mauricio (John Leguizamo), a successful white-collar professional married to Wall Street warrior Sarah (Debra Messing), a WASP who's never felt totally accepted by her in-laws. Then there's only daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), a struggling actress in L.A., and youngest son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), an Iraq War vet who pines for an old girlfriend, and suffers from guilt for causing the death of a fellow soldier. All the while, matriarch Anna (Elizabeth Peña) cooks a never-ending supply of delicious-looking food, and constantly complains about not having grandchildren.
The first half-hour of the movie gets all these people under one roof to celebrate Christmas together, and watching the ensemble is enjoyable -- the playful bickering has a warm familiarity to it. And if the film maintained this breezy tone for the entire time, it would be a low-key charmer, but when resentments and secrets come spilling out of everyone, the film's attempts at drama can't match the comedy. Serious scenes involving infidelity, lost love, and survivor's guilt never feel as natural as the good-natured moments of familial bonding, but instead feel like ham-fisted attempts to inject the characters with some emotional weight. While it is true that nothing all that original happens during the funny parts of the movie either, the family's Puerto Rican heritage gives the movie's comedy a unique spin. For example, Uncle Johnny (a scene-stealing Luis Guzman) kids Mauricio about when he and Sarah will make some "sorta Ricans." If the drama were as culturally specific as the comedy, the movie would be much more memorable.