Starring Edward Burns, Connie Britton, Noah Emmerich, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Anita Gilette, Heather Burns, Michael McGlone, Kerry Bishe and Ed Lauter
Directed by Edward Burns
Caitlin Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald) stands looking distraught in her house. Her brother Quinn (McGlone) and sister Sharon (Bishe) are with their respective girlfriend and boyfriend driving to a beach house a few hours from New York City. Their brother Gerry (Edward Burns) is managing the family bar and asks a woman named Nora (Britton) for a drink. Those are just four out of nine siblings who seem to be living their pre-holiday lives on their own or within clusters. They traditionally have to cerebrate Christmas with their mother Josie (Gilette), but things temporarily change this year. Gerry, the family’s de facto patriarch and peacemaker, tells the members of his family that their estranged father, Big Jim (Lauter), wants to celebrate Christmas with them. Inviting him over comes down to a vote, but there’s a shocker that’s affecting their decisions – Big Jim has pancreatic cancer and has two months to live.
There are times in this movie that make it indistinguishable from other straight to DVD sappy family dramedies. This is true especially with that piano driven score – derived from a Christmas song then veers off to different melody – which is the kind of music that’s an unwelcome presence in one’s head. Also, family comes first, making story lines about the siblings’ romantic relationships get crudely dropped, like the one between Sharon and her boyfriend. Most of the cast is competent except for Fitzgerald and Heather Burns, the latter playing their snobbish sister Erin. Both actresses reek whiny passiveness when they get outvoted by their younger siblings. Their less than stellar turns are a shame because Fitzgerald was excellent as the ex-suicidal Priss in Whit Stilman’s Damsels in Distress. Connie and Erin are great contrasts compared to the younger yet strong-willed Sharon, showing how the sisters have and can grow up differently. Painting the female characters with different brushes is an unexpected surprise from a male writer like Edward Burns. But I can’t say the same thing about the brothers who are essentially different variations of benevolent East Coast troglodytes.
But a movie’s shortcomings sometimes end up to its advantage, especially with writer-director Edward Burns’ sense of structure. A working class family like the Fitzgeralds have no business being prolific (Disclaimer: I am also poor and my mother has six siblings). But a large family makes it plausible for its members to be divided not only by gender and age but also by economic class and, through marriage and relationships, ethnicity. Having a group of nine also means that each character would have their opinions about their father despite partially agreeing or disagreeing with another. We’re watching characters instead of symbols, distinct voices within contemporary symphony with just the right bittersweet tone. This movie is more about forgiveness and the uphill climb towards equilibrium towards the perfect holiday. It earns its way enough into our hearts.