THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS"
Edward Burns burst onto the scene in 1995 with his Sundance-winning comedy The Brothers McMullen (one of my personal favorite films), and followed it up a year later with the indie hit She's the One. Both movies examined the relationship between Irish Catholic siblings living on Long Island. Burns continued to make movies, but veered away from that milieu. This year, while doing a press tour for Alex Cross, a picture he acted in, Burns related a story in which co-star Tyler Perry gave him some advice. Perry, of course, has had phenomenal success making films for a specific audience. His advice was simple: he told Burns to know and serve his niche. That sage bit of wisdom directly led to The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, a story of Irish Catholic siblings living on Long Island. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's Burns' most invigorating, heartfelt picture in years.
This is not to say it's a mere retread of McMullen or She's the One, but the films do inhabit the same universe. Burns plays Gerry, the eldest Fitzgerald child, who has moved back into the home of his mother, Rosie (Anita Gillette), after a personal tragedy. Gerry wants to gather his siblings together to discuss the possibility of allowing their ailing father, who walked out on them twenty years prior, to spend Christmas with the clan. Each of them seems to have felt the effects of his abandonment in some way, shape, or form. Sharon (Kerry Bishe) is dating a much older man, while denying “daddy issues.” Quinn (Michael McGlone) is a serial dater planning to propose to a woman he may not really love. Dottie (Marsha Dietlein) is having an extra-marital affair, just like Dear Old Dad did. Connie (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is trapped in an unhappy marriage to an abusive man. Youngest sibling Cyril (Tom Guiry) just got out of rehab. Aside from Gerry, the only one who seems truly open to the idea of a reunion is Erin (Heather Burns), but she can scarcely stand her brothers and sisters. Even if the siblings can agree, they must convince the still-bitter Rosie to allow Jim (Ed Lauter) back into the family home. Connie Britton - who, like McGlone, is a McMullen veteran – co-stars as a home health aide Gerry strikes up a romance with.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas again shows Burns' penchant for honest dialogue. The fights, resentments, and grievances aired by the characters sound authentic. They'll remind you of conversations you've likely had with your own family members. There are interesting dynamics between the group, too. The youngest siblings are the most resentful of their father because he wasn't there for them growing up. The older ones are more inclined to find forgiveness. Watching all of the highly-opinionated Fitzgeralds bump up against one another, sometimes joining forces, other times finding themselves in opposition, makes for some compelling drama. One of the best scenes finds three of them debating why it's easier to forgive a sibling than it is a parent. Relatability is one of the film's best qualities. Fitzgerald is astutely observant about family dynamics in times of crisis.
In the midst of the drama, Burns also makes sure to provide some laughs. He has a knack for capturing the way Irish Catholic families rib each other. Most of the actors have appeared in previous films from the director, so they know how to deliver his dialogue for maximum comic impact. They all do terrific work. I love these kinds of movies that give us identifiable characters and put them into everyday situations, so that we can observe, and laugh at, their interactions, even as they hit close to home.
With six Fitzgerald siblings to account for, plus two parents and a love interest, there are times when the story feels a bit overstuffed. One or two of the characters don't get as much screen time as they probably should in order to make their individual subplots fully pay off. That's my only real complaint, though. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is sincere and funny, with a conclusion that finds a way to be deeply heartwarming without getting sappy or manipulative. This is a terrific holiday movie that's honest enough to know the yuletide season has the potential to bring out both the best and the worst in every family, Irish Catholic or not.
( out of four)
Note: The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is available through video-on-demand, via outlets such as Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is unrated but contains language and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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