Lotsa Drama, Less Truth in 'The Flitzgerald Family Christmas'

Directed by: Edward Burns; Runtime: 109 minutes
Grade: C

Bitter divorces and flings with young women; unforeseen pregnancy and unemployment; rehab and illness and negligent kids ... these are a few of its favorite things. Actor/director Edward Burns again hops behind the camera for The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, a holiday-centered drama that focuses on reconciliation of past transgressions and the importance of the family bond during that most wonderful time of the year. There's something worth commending in Burns' ability to pull authentic performances from his actors within a dense network of sibling and parental connections, a testament to his capability as a director. However, it's hard to take it in earnest with such a laundry list of melodramatic problems hampering the lives of the Fitzgeralds -- namely father issues -- manufacturing too many Lifetime Channel-caliber crises to juggle while underlining how the spirit of the season triumphs over some of 'em.

Without a family leader to arrange things due to bad blood involving his negligent father, restaurant manager Gerry (Edward Burns) takes it upon himself to gather his brothers and sisters together for his mother's (Anita Gillette) pre-Christmas birthday celebration. One problem leads to another, though, between domestic squabbles and a general lack of desire to be around one another, leaving Gerry in the lurch as each of his siblings endure complications leading up to the holidays. While making social rounds, he meets Nora (Connie Britton), a nurse whom he shows a romantic interest in, a new situation considering his own personal tragedy. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas tracks Gerry and each of his siblings as they deal with their personal issues -- relationships with much older and younger flames, messy divorces, pregnancy, joblessness, drug addiction, wanting more from life -- alongside a more significant, universal one: their wayward father, Jim (Ed Lauter), has decided he wants to spend Christmas with them, clashing with his mother's adamant feelings toward her ex-husband.

There's a tolerable stripped-down holiday drama somewhere at the center of The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, involving a doting older brother dealing with his resistant siblings while trying to reconcile differences with their father for a significant Christmas celebration. Coupled with the restrained but inviting chemistry between Edward Burns and Connie Britton as a depiction of a guy who's lost his wife and wants to get back in the saddle with someone right, a far simpler and earnest story could be told here. Burns aims for more than that, though, instead focusing on how the Fitzgeralds' once-patriarch twisted all their perspectives on relationships, both romantic and within their large family, in various ways that made them all slightly off-kilter; some are detached and disgruntled, while others tolerate abuse and fail to see the good in front of them. It's an overly-ambitious endeavor that would've been far simpler had there been, say, half the number of brothers and sisters to bequeath with issues.

Unfortunately, the handful of subplots and divergent character focuses in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas make it feel like a scatterbrained mess overstuffed with superfluous melodrama, as if Edward Burns couldn't decide which passed-down parental issues to focus on and, instead, just tossed them all in for good measure. While the performances from everyone involved never grow unconvincing -- a testament to solid casting choices in selecting feasible siblings with a mix of timidity, protectiveness, and passion -- they're working with such an unlikely batch of concurrent issues that it gets strenuous to follow. It doesn't help that most of the Fitzgerald clan can be selfish and downright unlikable; it's bizarre to hear Gerry's brothers and sisters comment on his attitude when theirs are, oftentimes, more unbearable. Particularly, it's Connie (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Quinn's (Michael McGlone) trip to the Hamptons with their respective older, wealthy guy and younger potential bride-to-be that crashes and burns, the ordeal taking a predictable yet nonsensical turn while they're willfully secluded from family.

Resentment toward the Fitzgeralds' father run consistently throughout Mr. Burns' film, yet it's only once Jim reveals his reasons for choosing this Christmas to create a stir -- yeah, it's about what you'd expect -- that The Fitzgerald Family Christmas becomes frustratingly overstated and fixated on catharsis over the holidays. There's nothing subtle about it, either: the family's ugliness spills out in appalling ways, while their personal issues mushroom out of control as the day approaches. Tones revolving around physical abuse, mortality, and regret pigeonhole the film's emotional purposes towards that tidy, obvious resolution expected of a holiday drama, though, struggling for genuineness while the family makes its decisions as the dust settles from their other problems. Director Burns tries to deliver something akin to Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale by using a combination of tragedy and holiday obligation to air out a family's dirty laundry, but it ends up feeling insincere and trite once the Fitzgeralds finally lift their glasses in holiday cheer.

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