It's that time of the year where you can't spit in any direction without hitting some form of Yuletide dressing. Be it radio stations broadcasting Christmas carols 24/7, countless storefronts adorned in holiday attire, or incessant advertising reminders of doorbuster deals and limited time offers, there's no shortage of reminders that we're now firmly entrenched in the Christmas season. It is an imminence to which some people have been looking forward since December 26, 2011 while others are counting down the hours until they can finally once again secede from this holly jolly hell.
No matter where you are on the spectrum of holiday cheer, one inarguable truth about Christmas is that there is a common perception about the season in which movies, TV shows, and pop songs would have us believe: that of Christmas being the season of perpetual hope; of peace on earth and goodwill toward men; of one day of the year where all ills are cured, where all past transgressions are forgiven, where the proverbial hearth of home acts as both a rallying point and white washing for all family members near and far no matter where their hearts or heads may lie.
Indeed, any iteration of "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" will try to convince us that, "if you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays you can't beat home sweet home." While that may be true in essence for most people, those who live so saturated by the rule are quite often ignorant to the exception, those who don't look forward to Christmas, but dread it instead for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the imminent reunion with family members brought about more from obligation than from any special feelings of warmth or affection.
The Fitzgerald family is one such family. The quintessential New York Irish Catholic family, Rosie (Anita Gillette) and Jim Fitzgerald (Ed Lauter) were married too young and raised 7 kids—4 girls and 3 boys—in a cramped Long Island house that could've only comfortably accommodated 3. Perhaps it was the stress of unplanned claustrophobic suburban living that freaked Jim out, but 20 years ago the Fitzgerald patriarch sold his unnamed company for a small chunk of change and walked out on the family leaving behind all sorts of daddy issues for his kids and his wife vowing she'll never again allow him to step foot in the house.
This becomes a bit of an issue when Jim calls up Gerry (Edward Burns), the eldest son and fill-in father figure, expressing his desire to spend Christmas with his family. Gerry promises to bring it to the family for a vote seeing as they'll all allegedly be congregating to celebrate their mother's 70th birthday on December 23rd.
One by one, each sibling calls to pass off their best reasons as to why they won't be able to help their mother celebrate her passage into the next decade. Some reasons are valid, others are well conceived excuses, but all of them are indicative of larger problems that have only worsened as the siblings have gotten older:
– Quinn (Michael McGlone) would like to abscond to an isolated ski resort in order to propose to his far too young girlfriend, Abbie (Daniella Pineda), but settles instead for an escape to the Hamptons home of FX (Noah Emmerich), the far too old boyfriend of Quinn's baby sister, Sharon (Kerry Bishe).
– Dottie (Marsha Dietlein) cannot host the party at her house nor can she attend a party elsewhere thanks to her divorce, brought on by her affair with the 26-year old boy who cuts her lawn.
– Erin (Heather Burns) cannot seem to find the time nor the sanity for a party as her incessantly crying toddler has deprived her of both sleep and patience.
– Connie (Caitlin Fitzgerald) faces the burden of not only being pregnant, but the sole breadwinner of the family after he husband, JJ (Dara Coleman), is once again turned down for a job. He responds to the news of imminent fatherhood with physical assault and she responds by telling everyone through tears that she "needs to be there for him during his tough time."
– Cyril (Tom Guiry), the baby brother, get off easy seeing as he doesn't even arrive home until Christmas Eve. Of course, nothing is really easy when you're arriving home for the first time after spending a year in rehab for alcoholism.
With that veritable laundry list of neuroses and psychological scarring, it's no wonder the family dreads getting together; every instance in which the 7 siblings are in a room together holds the potential for an explosion of unresolved quarrels and long-festering grudges. Even if the kids can manage to put aside their interpersonal squabbles, there's still the slight complication of division of opinion when it comes to their father: the older kids remember a father who was tough, but who did the best he could despite never completing high school, while the younger kids only know their father through his absence, both physical and emotional. But a decision must be made soon—it's almost Christmas and time is running out.
During a time of the year when we can be distracted by saccharine artifice perpetuated by mass media, it's refreshing to see a film that acknowledges the fact that the alleged "Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is, for some people, the worst time of the year: a time when the rest of the world's celebrating peace, love and joy makes their absence of those things all the more painful and dreadful. What's also welcome is that The Fitzgerald Family Christmas doesn't swing the pendulum in the other way, the direction in which independent films, by definition of being the antithesis of mainstream cinema, are naturally inclined to tilt—that of irrevocable bleakness.
As writer/director, Edward Burns isn't concerned with undermining preconceived notions about Christmas, but is instead using the Yuletide as a believable excuse to bring together a motley crew of people who are largely doing so against their will. With a brisk runtime clocking in well under 2 hours, it's a testament to Burns' writing and the ensemble cast's largely improvised performances that each Fitzgerald family member stands apart from the rest. At times the script is guilty of ham fisted dialogue or emotional manipulation (there is a 9/11 reference that serves little purpose), but for the most part the flaws that really draw attention to themselves seem to be localized to Gerry, the character who, despite being the audience's entry point into an ensemble film, is largely flawless and conflict free; he finds love with Nora (Connie Britton), easily navigates both sides of the parental divide and is ultimately proven to be the victim in a grudge held against him by Sharon, who was upset that Gerry once said her boyfriend was too old for her (he was).
And yet, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas wants to have its cake and eat it too by positioning itself as a mainstream film in indie clothing, particularly in how it ultimately buys into all the hullabaloo about the inherent magic of the Christmas season. Mind you, that comment is not meant to be read as questioning whether Christmas is legitimately a special holiday as much as it's meant to question where the film's loyalties lie. For the first half of its runtime, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas appears to be utilizing the foreground of the Irish Catholic family archetype to break down the mythology of putting family above all else no matter what. How often in movies does an undeserving immediate family member find redemption courtesy of the unspoken and often undeserved obligation inherent within the arbitrary phrase, "it's family"? While Burns initially leads us to believe that he's crafted a film willing to concede that the lines of family are not unconditionally overriding, he eventually steers us to the heartwarming moments we've all seen dozens of times before.
Admittedly, there are more than a few moments where Burns, armed with a static, observational camera and a score of Christmas carols reduced effectively to piano tracks, really tugs on those heart strings – a pivotal sequence near the end involving "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" got me particularly choked up – but by coming so close to something deeper and then settling instead on playing it safe, I can't help but wonder if there's a better, or at least different film buried somewhere beneath the luster of The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.