By Mack Chico
There is a right way and a wrong way to describe the new feature film “Nothing Like the Holidays.” The wrong way is to call it a Hispanic holiday film. The cast and crew of the film stress that the right way to describe their movie is that it is a holiday film that just happens to have a Hispanic family at its core.
It might sound like semantics. But it makes a world of difference to those involved with the family comedy that opens Friday.
The first description means the movie is aimed directly at a certain ethnic movie-going audience. The other description is more in line with what star and executive producer Freddy Rodriguez wants to get across with the movie. The Chicago native, of Puerto Rican descent, wanted this movie to have a Hispanic spirit, but a universal feel.
“We wanted anyone – of any ethnicity – to watch this movie and go ‘That’s my family. My uncle. My cousin. We yell like that at the dinner table.’ We want everybody to be able to relate to it. At the same time, we wanted to keep a level of authenticity so it does not feel manufactured or whitewashed,” Rodriguez says during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
Film history is not on Rodriguez’s side. The majority of films released in United States theaters that focus on characters of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish heritage – such as “My Family,” “Under the Same Moon” or “Real Women Have Curves” – have dealt with specific ethnic themes and situations. That has resulted in a narrowing of the moviegoing base.
Rodriguez wants everyone to see his film. He knows they will relate to the themes regardless of their ethnicity.
Rodriguez saw how taking what could be a specific subject and giving it universal appeal could work through his guest-star turn on the ABC series “Ugly Betty.” The television series is based on the Colombian telenovela “Betty la Fea.”
“How come there has never been a commercial movie that revolves around a Latin family? It is kind of what (executive producer) Salma (Hayek) did with “Ugly Betty.” She did an American television show that happens to revolve around this Latin girl and this Latin family,” Rodriguez says. “She made it universal for everybody. I always admired what her and (executive producers) Silvio Horta and Jose Tamez did with that show and wondered why it hasn’t been done in the film world.
“And so I just felt like it was my job to do it.”
The result is a movie about a Chicago family that comes together to celebrate Christmas. It stars Rodriguez, Elizabeth Pena, Melonie Diaz, Luis Guzman, Jay Hernandez, Vanessa Ferlito, John Leguizamo, Alfred Molina and Debra Messing.
“Nothing Like the Holidays” shows how each family member brings his or her own problems to the annual reunion. And these problems – medical issues, starting a family, duty to country, etc. – are not specific to any ethnic group.
Pena, whose father is Cuban, plays the mother in the film. When Pena saw the script, her reaction was, “I could see it as a Jewish family or an Italian family.”
The universal themes aren’t just a way to open up the movie to a larger audience. It gives the cast a way to play a role that is more about people than their ethnic backgrounds.
Jay Hernandez, a fourth-generation Mexican-American, is happy to be in “Nothing Like the Holidays” because he has faced typecasting throughout his career.
“For me, that was like the first five years of my career. Always the same sorts of things, the same kind of roles, same kind of characters. A lot of them were gang members. I avoided that for so long,” Hernandez says.