With The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, Edward Burns returns to his Irish-Catholic roots for the first time in a decade, and judging by the film’s Altmanesque number of characters, he’s eager to make up for lost time. There are eight Fitzgeralds in all, not counting an estranged father and several significant others, which is ultimately too much activity for a film that, in its better moments, displays a serenity missing from the often hysteric plots of most holiday-themed family dramas, but for the most part gets stretched too thin trying to attend to all its characters.
Rosie (Anita Gillette) is the Fitzgerald matriarch, who was left to raise three sons and four daughters on her own when her husband ran out 20 years earlier. Burns competently distinguishes the children for the audience mostly by assigning each sibling his or her own source of drama: Cyril (Tom Guiry), the youngest, is fresh out of rehab; Dottie (Marsha Dietlein Bennett) recently split from her husband after she started an affair with their gardener; Connie (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is in an unstable relationship and has just discovered she’s pregnant; Erin (Heather Burns) lost her faith, married a Jewish man, and has to continually stop Rosie from baptizing her child. Amid all this, Gerry (Burns), the eldest, is trying to corral the family for Rosie’s 70th birthday so they can discuss the sudden reappearance of the father (Malachy McCourt), who’s broke, lonely, suffering from terminal cancer, and wants to spend a final Christmas with his family. And that only accounts for about half of the film’s characters. At the very least, Fitzgerald Family Christmas provides a twist on the modern holidays: There’s a personal conflict here for one and all.
Burns certainly doles out his fair share of family turmoil, but he admirably doesn’t make lunatics out of his characters. The tension between the members of the Fitzgerald clan carries a tone of frustration and disinterestedness rather than one of outright hatred. The controlled energy is a nice shift from the usual dysfunction that family dinners often descend to in movies, but it also leads to lower stakes. The siblings’ problems get dispensed with briskly and in a tidy manner on the way to the family reunion, and only the question of their father’s attendance receives prolonged debate throughout the film. But the discussion never reaches beyond asserting the basic dilemma of Dad’s imminent death and his past shortcomings as a husband and father and whether the spirit of the season is an excuse for forgiveness. Burns eschews melodrama but also doesn’t offer much nuance, and so the film moves toward its conclusion steadily but unremarkably, managing, by the end, only a schematic portrayal of this clan’s family ties.