Who Says Christmas Is Over…

We just can’t let go of the holiday spirit here at Pop Theology.  Wendy Arce provides a belated review of two of the bigger holiday films and offers some interesting thoughts on the use of stereotypes in each.

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I normally don’t catch the holiday films, but this year, I somehow found myself in two just 24 hours apart!  Four Christmases and Nothing Like the Holidays are particularly interesting because they share a similar Christmas message while representing two different ethnic groups. They espouse narratives that may be stereotypical of Caucasian and Latino groups, but those stereotypes are transgressed and twisted throughout the film in interesting, if somewhat predictable, ways. Additionally, like any Christmas story, Four Christmases and Nothing like the Holidays are all about family and even reach similar conclusions that either encourage young couples to enjoy their family through closer relationships or to create their own family.  

Directed by Seth Gordon, Four Christmases was this past holiday’s big comedy production, full of family mishaps. In this film, lawyer and successful girlfriend, Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon), do everything in their power to avoid their families (Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, John Voight, and Mary Steenburgen) during the holidays. They always plan a tropical getaway right around Christmas and give their families complex and detailed stories about the charity work they do in far off places – like inoculating babies in Burma, or building houses in Bali. After all, says Brad, “You can’t spell families without lies.” However, as luck would have it, their latest flight is delayed until the next day, and after being interviewed on the Bay Area news, which both of their parents just have to be watching, Brad and Kate are forced to spend Christmas with their families. Tapping into the unfortunate reality of a high divorce rate in the U.S., both of their parents just happen to be divorced, which forces them to “celebrate” not two but four Christmases.

Brad and Kate spend the day driving to four different households together, and, oddly enough, it is the first time they will meet each other’s families in the three years that they have been dating. Throughout the day, Brad and Kate find out more about each other than they ever knew. For starters, Brad’s real given name is Orlando, and he is often victimized and abused by his brothers. Kate went to fat camp and was known as “Cootie Kate.” These little trivialities don’t necessarily drive a wedge between Brad and Kate. The first few scenes of the movie show how happy they are – just the two of them, with no interest in getting married or having kids because they’ve witnessed just how horrible families can be. Why ruin it?

The problem arises, however, when Kate becomes interested in having a family with Brad as she experiences each Christmas.  This interest threatens their perfect life and alienates Brad who, at Kate’s bidding, goes home.  At her fourth Christmas, Kate realizes the importance of family as she sees her father and mother peacefully celebrate their grand daughter together, even though they are each with their new significant others.   Kate is obviously sad about her apparent break-up with Brad but also seems to realize that she does want the experience of having her own family.  She also takes a lesson from her father to stop lying to her family, a lesson that he learned as well.  Predictably, Brad comes to his senses and rejoins Kate, providing us with a typical Hollywood ending. The holiday movie was a mildly entertaining success, complete with a spurt of drama, and the message that the power of family can rule out in the end. Not only do Kate and Brad have a child by the following year, but even the family torn by divorce can put their differences aside and share memorable holidays.

This season also brought a Latino Christmas story, where director Alfredo de Villa takes us to a Chicago home for Christmas. Family members from all over the U.S. and abroad come together for a few days of family time. The only difference to the average holiday flick is the fact that this Chicago family is Puerto Rican. Although you’d expect a film overflowing with “sabor” around every corner, the film doesn’t reek of misplaced, awkward elements of Latino culture, and the storyline is quite conceivably relatable to all ethnic groups. After all, as title suggests, there is Nothing like the Holidays.

The film begins with shots of the Rodriguez children making their way to Chicago, and parents Edy (Alfred Molina) and Ana (Elizabeth Pena), preparing the household and family business for the holidays. Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his Jewish wife Sarah (Debra Messing) are traveling from New York, Roxana (Vanessa Ferlito) is arriving from L.A., and Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is coming home from his Iraqi tour of duty. From the start, the film presents scenarios that mirror the traveling plans of millions of people nationwide, including the joyous arrival of estranged troops that thousands of families could only hope for. Jesse receives a hero’s welcome by his cousin Johnny (Luis Guzman) and childhood friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) as well as a huge banner draped across his childhood home. The little aspects that make this story different, of course, relate to the family’s Puerto Rican-ness – like Ana complaining to Mauricio and Sarah about her lack of grandchildren, or her disapproval of Sarah’s inability to speak Spanish fluently and cook a decent meal. The culture clash between Puerto Rican mom and Jewish daughter-in-law is evident, especially as Mauricio must explain to Sarah that the family’s apparently heated conversations at the dinner table are actually just plain conversations, not arguments. Additionally, Johnny’s pimped up SUV, complete with Puerto Rican paraphernalia and the cuts to Spanish dialogue every so often distinguish this as a Latino Christmas story. The storyline, however, and experiences will connect with most people, making it, in the end, an American Christmas story.

With any typical family Christmas story, drama and conflict are just around the bend, and it’s clear the first time the family sits down to dinner. Childhood friend and Jesse’s former girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz) also attends the festivities and brings her current boyfriend and son. As it turns out, Ana has been suspecting Edy of cheating on her, since he always ducks away at the sound of his cell phone and cannot be found for hours at a time during the day. In fact, when he takes a call at the dinner table, she makes the announcement that she intends to divorce him. The family responds to news as if it was a joke, but Ana is dead serious about her threat. One-by-one, the guests excuse themselves as the Rodriguez family begins to argue about their parents’ right to get divorced or their duty to remain together. The next day, the family spends time together, but Ana’s choice appears to be made – as soon as the holidays are over, she will leave. Being home for Christmas brings up many issues for the Rodriguez family, including the children’s resentment of each other. Nevertheless, they make it through, and continue to have fun when they are not arguing.

However, when Edy is driving Sarah to the neighborhood bar, she finds out his terrible secret. He begs her to stay quiet – after all, it is holidays, and he just wants to keep the family together and happy. Edy’s only desire is to spend this Christmas with his family, as happily as possible. As the film and drama rage on, we find out that he has been diagnosed with cancer – to what extent? We don’t know. The whole situation of his illness is pretty unclear as well. Nevertheless, Edy’s mortality obviously brings Ana back to him, especially since it is clear to her that his mysterious phone calls and afternoon dates were really with his oncologist. The career-driven Mauricio and Sarah decide to try for children and Roxana and Jesse opt to move back to Chicago to be closer to the family. In the end, the Rodriguez clan defaults to their family, since life is indeed short.

A huge plus for this film is how they can bring elements of Puerto Rican culture to the forefront while creating a story to which people outside of this cultural context can relate.  The film’s story line follows the classic Christmas tale, and even includes a returning Iraqi soldier, hopefully mirroring some families’ holiday experiences or providing hope to others.  However, with its hints of Puerto Rican culture, like folkloric foods, the depiction of the Parranda, and Ana’s insistence on grandchildren, it also brings the few people that saw this film closer to Puerto Rican culture and the complex dynamics in these inherently intercultural families.

These two films deliver unsurprising stereotypes, but with interesting twists that challenge our notions of Caucasian and Latino culture.  The young Caucasian couple avoids their family at all costs and dreads the day ahead of them. The film speaks to the commonality of families that have divorced and remarried parents. Although I don’t want to imply that Caucasian families tend to get divorced while Hispanic families remain married, because that would be false, the stereotype tells us that the older generation of Hispanics that have traveled to the U.S. tend to hold to the vow of marriage against all odds.  In the case of these two movies, the Caucasian couple has four, instead of two houses to visit, while the Latinos have just one. However, both films attest to a changing world.  In Four Christmases, the last Christmas embodies a family oriented message in which Kate sees her parents getting along together, although divorced and in new relationships. Kate, who ran from her family, now must lean on them for support and realizes the importance of family in her life.

Nothing like the Holidays challenges our stereotypes of the Latino family, because even though all the children are flocking home for Christmas, we learn that this is the first Christmas they have spent together for in three years, due most notably to Jesse’s tour in Iraq and Roxana’s failed Hollywood career. Had the film taken place the previous Christmas, the Rodriguez family would have broken the stereotype that the film espouses. Ana also brings a dashing halt to the stereotypical everlasting Latino marriage when she announces her intentions of divorcing her husband, because she believes he has been cheating on her. While the film eventually shows that he has not, audiences might all too easily accept the womanizing Latino stereotype in this situation. In the end, it appears that the family grows more solid, especially as the prodigal son and daughter, Jesse and Roxana, decide to stick around. The successful working couple also decides to start having children of their own, a la Brad and Kate, because they realize that life is short. In the end, these holiday films do a little more than just tell us to enjoy our families; they challenge our stereotypes while being somewhat entertaining and relative to a wider American audience.