It’s Christmas in Chicago and the far-flung members of the Rodriguez clan are coming home to spend the holidays at the their parent’s house. But Mom (Elizabeth Pena) has a surprise in store for the grown siblings: She is divorcing their father (Alfred Molina) right after the tree is taken down. This doesn’t sit well with the now adult kids including business man Mauricio (John Leguizamo) who has arrives with high-powered wife Sarah (Debra Messing). There’s also Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) a successful Hollywood actress who seems to be at a crossroads in her life while her nice neighborhood friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) would like to be mean more to her. And then there’s Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) just back from Iraq and unsure of his place in the family. All of these situations intertwine when the serious illness of one of their own is suddenly revealed and the family has to pick up the pieces and come together. Nothing Like the Holidays gains its strength from a superbly chosen cast including the wonderful Molina as the family patriarch who tries desperately to keep his family and marriage together. As his long-suffering wife Anna Pena is superb cutting right to the core of who this woman is. Also very impressive is Six Feet Under star Rodriguez who plays the returning Iraq vet with touching pathos. Leguizamo on the other hand pretty much sleepwalks through his one-dimensional role and is miscast opposite Messing who still manages to evoke sympathy for her career woman quickly running out of time to have a baby. Ferlito is just fine as the fledgling Hollywood actress who seems more at home than the rest. Hernandez is an attractive and forthright presence as the local boy who finds himself attracted to the possibly unattainable star. Meanwhile a cameo by terrific character actor Luis Guzman provides comic relief. Director Alfredo De Villa has proven he knows his way around a character-driven drama with his film Washington Heights. And with Holidays he clearly invests a lot of time making sure these interconnected storylines make sense in the scheme of things and turns the sometimes pedestrian situations into what almost seems like live theatre. The performances snap crackle and pop and the seasonal atmosphere really contributes to the satisfying dramatics . Although some of the actors are allowed to go over the top occasionally De Villa keeps control of the film and makes it work as a very engaging and lively holiday confection you and your family will most likely identify with.
One thing The Country Bears has in its favor is that the film keeps the plot simple. A convoluted storyline in which bears and humans interact would only make this even more painful to watch. Set in a music-video-type format where the bears and the humans sing and dance and have a grand old time the movie focuses on 11-year-old Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) a young lad growing up with a very loving--and very human--family. Yet something doesn't feel right to Beary. Maybe it's because his jealous older brother Dex (Eli Marienthal) keeps telling him he has been adopted. Or maybe it's because he is a bear. Whatever the reason Beary feels connected only when he is playing his guitar and worshipping a hugely successful '60s rock band called The Country Bears--a quartet of big hairy fellows with names like Tennessee O'Neal Ted and Fred Bedderhead and Zeb Zoober who broke up over "creative differences" many moons ago. Beary decides to head out into the wild beyond to look for his true heroes--and find his place in the world. What he discovers is that the old Country Bear Hall where those wily bears used to perform is going to be torn down by the evil Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken. Yes we just said Christopher Walken.) Beary can't let this happen so he comes up with the plan to find the ex-Bears get them back together for a benefit concert and save the venue. Yee-haw.
Everyone associated with this film (from the actors to the long string of cameos by real-life musicians) surely believed they were making a fun-filled romp for the kiddies. You know "something to take the whole family to see " but they may not have realized how incredibly inane it would turn out to be. Or maybe Disney called in a lot of favors. Walken could have just lost a bet. The point is this--the human cast simply serves a purpose as the framework for the bears. Megan Fay and Stephen Tobolowsky are Beary's sugary-sweet mom and dad. Diedrich Bader and Daryl Mitchell play bumbling police officers looking for the hairy little fellow. Only Marienthal's Dex recognizes the absurdity of the situation--Beary is a bear and Marienthal gets to say probably all three of the best lines in the film. Cameos by artists such as Bonnie Raitt Don Henley and Elton John are fun but don't add much to the fray. Meanwhile the vocal talents are notable only when real-life singers like Raitt and Henley (who "sing" a duet as Tennessee and lady bear Trixie) and country singer John Hiatt (also as Tennessee) get to perform. Haley Joel Osment as the voice of Beary is more animated than the young actor has ever had the chance to be onscreen but there may be a reason for that--Osment is annoying as a chipper guy.
Most of us know about Disney theme parks and their most popular attractions--the Haunted House the Pirates of the Caribbean and of course the Country Bear Jamboree. Now Disney has gotten the bright idea to turn these attractions into movies--cashing in on the familiarity--and those singing dancing bears are the first guinea pigs. In other words Disney is grasping at straws. Granted the film is intended for children but let's not insult their intelligence as well. Besides a bad script so-so puppetry and sappy original songs the most bothersome thing about The Country Bears is that the bears walk and talk like their human counterparts have jobs eat in restaurants and play in rock-and-roll bands but there are only about six of them altogether. There aren't any other bears around. Or any other animals for that reason. At least in a Muppet movie the Muppets are everywhere and so it's understood they simply co-exist with humans. If you were to meet one of these Country Bears on the street you'd be very afraid.