Edward Burns — the writer/director/actor behind so many character-driven talky, Long Island/New York City based films — remains one of my favorite filmmakers working today. One of the main reasons why is how much I can relate to his films, and in this era of broken families, remarried parents, and single parents, a traditional “family Christmas” is difficult, if not impossible, to organize. In The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, Burns and his “murder’s row” of actors he’s worked with before show how seven siblings manage to pull together to celebrate the holiday even if some of them can’t stand to be in the same room as one another. Of course, with bigger families come more problems.
Gerry (Burns) is the oldest of the seven Fitzgerald siblings and the owner/operator of the family’s namesake pub. Gerry still lives with his mother (Anita Gillette) and has served as the de facto patriarch of the clan ever since their father (Ed Lauter) walked out on the family twenty years ago after striking it rich. That is, until their father contacts Gerry and is desperate to spend Christmas with his estranged family. The Fitzgerald siblings are besieged by all manner of problems — most of their own making — but Gerry attempts to pull them all together to come to a consensus about whether or not they should invite their father to the Christmas gathering even if their mother is completely against it.
Burns’ last several films have been about romantic relationships, but this one is about family relationships — most specifically, the relationships between the Fitzgerald siblings and their varied relationships to their estranged father. Naturally the siblings have differing opinions on whether their father should be invited over for Christmas — with the two youngest, Sharon (Kerry Bishe) and the just-out-of-rehab Cyril (Tom Guiry, AKA “Smalls” from The Sandlot) the most vocally against it. But the issue with their father is just the tip of the iceberg for the Fitzgerald siblings, who all have their own life issues — some involving each other — with Gerry doing everything he can to keep the clan together. That isn’t easy since the Fitzgeralds seem to have every problem possible — toss them all into a blender, mix well, and now you begin to understand exactly what Gerry has to balance with his father’s request. Though the siblings don’t particularly look alike, the connections between them feel very real — which is probably because most of them have worked with Burns before. Along with Burns, the cast includes Kerry Bishe, Marsha Dietlein (both of whom starred in Newlyweds and Nice Guy Johnny), Caitlin Fitzgerald (starred in Newlyweds), Heather Burns (starred in The Groomsmen), Anita Gillete (starred in She’s the One), Michael McGlone (starred in The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One), and Connie Britton (starred in Looking for Kitty and The Brothers McMullen).
There is a lot under the surface here, since in a 100 minute movie Burns can’t possibly delve into the entire family history of the Fitzgeralds — yet we get enough to know that while they’re not particularly close, like many families they are there for one another when the going gets tough. Though much of the movie is saturated by arguing, there are many smiles — many because of Nora (Britton), a nurse of one of Mom Fitzgerald’s old friends who strikes up a welcome romance with Gerry (and perhaps most welcome for Gerry, Nora has no family to deal with). Britton is no slouch when it comes to moving between comedy and drama, and her character is a wonderful escape for Gerry, who one otherwise wonders why he doesn’t explode with frustration at his bickering, and often inconsiderate, siblings. After all, the film’s opening scenes show that while most of the siblings can’t forgive their father for walking out on them, none of them except Gerry can make time to spend with their mother on her 70th birthday. Much like their father, none of the Fitzgeralds are perfect (though Gerry comes pretty close, but one of Burns’ only weaknesses is his tendency to make his character the center of reason in nearly all of his films. Well, at least he’s not as bad as Dax Sheppard, who has to make himself the center of awesomeness in his movies, like Hit & Run).
The film doesn’t break any new ground for Burns, but it wasn’t supposed to. It continues both his low-budget trailblazing — though Fitzgerald must have had a larger budget that his previous microbudget films Nice Guy Johnny and Newlyweds based on cast alone, but he obviously saved on set costs by filming in locations he could get for free or on the cheap — and his analysis of the family that he began exploring in his very first film, The Brothers McMullen.
In that sense the film is on par with Newlyweds (check out my review of that here), except Fitzmas (as Burns has been calling it) has more heart. It’s a Christmas film that directly relates to the family relationship issues we’re all familiar with, yet at the same time demonstrates hope that at least on Christmas those negative feelings can be put aside to celebrate the best of us. And as far as Christmas movies go, that message is probably the closest to reality that we’ll ever get. Finally, a great Christmas film in a sea of yearly Yuletide made-for-TV junk and “comedies” like Four Christmases!
RATING: Burns continues to demonstrate that few filmmakers understand the close-knit connection of family as much as he does (8/10).