Film Review: The Fitzgerald Family Christmas

Writer-director Ed Burns co-stars as a man trying to pull together his large, dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family in time for Christmas. Best opt for the original miracle.

It’s great that local-hero writer-director Ed Burns presents a vision of New York City aside from the Woody Allen-ish Manhattan skyline shots or views from various City museums. Out-of-towners may think that’s the only New York, but in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, Burns gives a rare picture of another borough, showing the working-class environment he grew up in, and eulogizes: Queens, and even the beaches of Long Island when not in high season. A kind of part two (though it’s 17 years hence) to The Brothers McMullen, Burns’ earlier tale of his own Irish-American experience, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is the holiday story of a large Catholic family with even bigger troubles.

The seven adult siblings have problems: spousal abuse, interfaith marriages, adultery, unplanned pregnancies, though this second generation of Irish-Americans is updated to recovering alcoholics, women worrying they may pick the wrong man because their dad was absent, and thirty-something bachelors fearing they’ve played the field too long. But these are as nothing compared to the central dilemma of the film: Should an absentee dad gone missing for 20 years be allowed to come home for Christmas dinner? Do we really have to ask?

Burns plays the affable Gerry, a kind of junior paterfamilias holding the family together, living at home with Mom (Anita Gillette), and managing, sometimes mismanaging, the lives of his brothers and sisters. But it’s like herding cats to try to convince “the family”—including Mom, of course—to get together with Dad for this year’s holiday, probably Dad’s last ever. Adding to the emotional pressure is Mom’s December 23 birthday; in the only non-sappy line in the film, she spunkily says, “When you have your birthday two days before Christmas, you get used to eating your cake alone.”

We don’t spend enough time with the other brothers and sisters to care about their issues—though we’re glad of Gerry’s burgeoning romance with Nora (Connie Britton, playing a caregiver to a friend of the family). What does come through is that the sometimes self-involved siblings always unite when threatened by “outsiders.” They are kind of mid-range Kennedys; the hereditary family business is even a bar. Nice, but where’s the holiday tag? And while we get that Mom, generous in most ways, is bitter about being abandoned, the script drops in too many reasons for Dad’s departure: He maybe had to go to make his first million, there was of course another woman involved. But with that “full of blarney” glint in the eye (a clever performance by Ed Lauter as Dad), explanations are left in the air.

Oddly, it turns out that the original couple—Mom and Dad—are where the magic happens. We end up believing in their years-ago attraction, though this coda underscores the ancient Irish-Catholic message that men are devils, and women angels who must forgive. Just ask Malachy McCourt, playing a stock Irish priest.

As for Christmas Day itself, though the matching holiday p.j.’s are cute, the only universal memories that are triggered involve guilt-motivated travels, last-minute gift-buying, and that pesky Scotch tape. This is why some people avoid the holidays altogether, and will probably do the same for this movie.