The blueprint for a holiday drama is a fairly simple one: assemble a sizeable cast in a single location, bring up secrets from the past, throw in some laughs and at least one character who’s dying -- but who doesn’t die just yet -- for heartstrings’ sake. The biggest problem with Ed Burns’ “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” is that it hardly distinguishes itself outside of these basic elements and his well-established Irish-American heritage.
In addition to writing and directing, Burns plays Gerry, a bar owner struggling to rope his two brothers (Tom Guiry, Michael McGlone) and four sisters (Heather Burns, Kerry Bishe, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Marsha Dietlein Bennett) together for not only Christmas, but their mother’s 70th birthday two days prior. Besides sheer holiday spirit, they need to get together to make one important decision: can they forgive their estranged father (Ed Lauter) for walking out on the family twenty years ago, or do they support their mother (Anita Gillette) in continuing to shun him?
Along the way are numerous romantic developments (in particular, Gerry falls for a family friend’s nurse played by Connie Britton) and an all-around checklist of drama: rehab, abuse, pregnancies, unemployment, cancer diagnoses, marriage proposals. Each of the Fitzgeralds are distinctly defined, and each of the performers serves the material convincingly, despite on-the-nose dialogue that see long-familiar characters constantly reiterating their dysfunctions aloud to one another (“Our family is crazy!” “We’re brother and sister, yet we hardly know each other!”) and conflicts that play out to predictable ends. Veteran actors Lauter and Gillette do manage to stand out a bit for how they subtly convey the love that once held their marriage and family together and the resentments that have long kept both apart.
As commendable as it is that Burns hardly allows his cast to succumb to the usual yuletide hysterics, there’s little humor or heart to define the film beyond simply making the rounds from subplot to subplot. His low-key, low-budget directorial approach, spurred on lately by the reduced expense of digital filmmaking (“Fitzgerald” is his second film released this year), is as wholly adequate as ever, basically blocked throughout and accompanied by a plaintive piano score that suggests a greater melancholy than his own simplistic screenplay can muster.
The result is a blandly amiable thing, hardly resonant in spite of all the heartache that abounds. Perhaps if Burns had focused on a handful of central dilemmas rather than doling out a soapy thread for each of his countless characters, this “Christmas” may have been a more memorable one.
“The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” is currently available On Demand and will open in select cities on December 7th.