“The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” (2012)

by A.J. Hakari

"The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" poster

For all their tidings of comfort and joy, holiday movies are still pretty low on the cinematic totem. There are the obvious exceptions (especially A Christmas Story, because it’s A Christmas Story, dammit), but these tend to be some of the most pandering pictures on the planet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen insultingly melodramatic shenanigans trotted out on screen, only for some moral about the spirit of the season to try and excuse it away. More than just about any other genre, it’s clear when the filmmakers are being insincere, which is one thing I cannot say about the otherwise tedious dramedy The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. Writer/director/star/caterer Edward Burns has been cranking out small-scale flicks for years, and this one feels no less personal. But it’s still a pretty lousy sit, with no shortage of clichéd, exposition-heavy writing that makes the characters look like anything but the flawed human beings with whom we’re intended to identify.

December 25th is fast approaching, and the Fitzgeralds of New York are readying for their annual get-together…or at least that’s what older brother Gerry (Burns) expects. After his father (Ed Lauter) walked out on the family twenty years prior, Gerry has taken it upon himself to look after his mom (Anita Gillette) and guide his siblings to the best of his abilities. But this year, the Fitzgerald kids are too preoccupied to show up for their mother’s 70th birthday, let alone stick around for Christmas two days later. From little brother Cyril (Tom Guiry) trying to move on with life after rehab and big sister Dottie (Marsha Dietlein) shacking up with a much younger man, it appears that everyone has somewhere else to be or someone with whom they’d rather be in bed. However, the biggest bombshell has yet to be dropped — Pops Fitzgerald wants to come home, driving Gerry to try even harder to bring his clan together and make the decision of whether or not to let the sins of the past be forgiven.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas has a good story in mind, but it picks the most ungainly, roundabout way of telling it. Burns gives himself perhaps too much ground to cover, as his character’s efforts to reunite his extended but disjointed brood, the dilemma of whether they should let their estranged father back into their lives, and each of the Fitzgeralds’ own personalized crises all find themselves jostling for attention. He tries to give everything equal standing in the narrative, but doing so involves cutting an incredible amount of corners and reducing a series of complicated subplots into simplistic shadows of themselves. Nowhere is this more obvious than whenever the focus is on any Fitzgerald who has a significant other, the latter of whom (save for maybe one) are all revealed to be horrible douche-canoes but given no motivation for being so rotten. Burns’s ultimate message is the importance of family, but whether it was the intention or not, the abundance of one-dimensionally evil love interests plays like a condemnation of any slightly unconventional lifestyle; abandon all hope of a happy ending, ye who have the hots for someone of a different age bracket.

Everyone in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is damaged goods to some degree, but don’t hold your breath for an explanation. Though it’s assumed that their patriarch’s absence did a number on every kid’s psyche, no effort is made to flesh out just what screwed them up. The Fitzgeralds are almost entirely defined by the emotional baggage they lug about and how peeved they are at their dad, neither of which shares a particularly strong connection with the other. The sadness of their lives is pretty much all we have to be interested in, since the comedy is even more ill-conceived (unless the idea of a woman taking her atheist daughter’s son to be baptized in secret strikes you as gut-busting). But if anything comes close to saving The Fitzgerald Family Christmas from going under, it’s the actors, all of whom try their hardest to pull together as a once close-knit clan that’s drifted apart over the years. Burns succeeds in pulling off the most complex and subtle performance of the lot, refreshingly non-showy as the by-proxy man of the house who’s trying to keep his own life and potential romance from falling to pieces.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas isn’t a movie — it’s a guilt trip. After all the trouble it goes to in order to touch upon delicate subject matter, the film spends an awful lot of time simply wagging its finger, scolding the viewer for even thinking that looking after your own desires once in a while is a good thing. It’s more genuine than a Deck the Halls could ever hope to be, but The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is more likely to spread seasonal depression than holiday cheer.