Monday, December 31, 2012

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Movie Review

Every family has troubles and internal drama. It’s very easy to spot it in other families, but to turn the lens inward and examine your own circumstances is difficult. We have a tendency to always think of ourselves as reasonable despite evidence to the contrary. Harder still is to turn a literal lens onto a family’s problems and conflicts and shape it from paper to screen into a compelling story that people might learn something from. Edward Burns has been trying to do that since his independent filmmaking career began auspiciously more than fifteen years ago during the American renaissance (which turned out to be the last dying gap) of indie films.

There is still a lot of great work being done in the world of independent movie making, but they’re rarely, if ever, shot on film anymore. Digital video is the way of the future, and has been for some time. It has changed the way directors and cinematographers work and it’s changed the way movies are meant to be viewed. I think I made a mistake in seeing The Fitzgerald Family Christmas in a cinema. Here is a movie, like Burns’ two previous, that was made for the video on demand and DVD market. Blown up to cinema screen size it appeared fuzzy and pixilated. I have no doubt that on my HDTV at home, it would have appeared fine. I saw his last film, Newlyweds, in the cinema. Although both films were shot on the same digital camera, perhaps I wasn’t as distracted by the projection quality before because it was shot with a lot of handheld in a faux-documentary style. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is shot with more traditional camera setups. All this is my long-winded way of saying that, although I’ve felt in recent years as if these kinds of small independent dramas have disappeared from cinema, they’ve simply shifted to a new market.

Maybe Burns never would have survived if he’d continue trying to finance big productions shot on 35mm. After all, his stories don’t have the kind of mass appeal that’s built into big studio productions. He might have gone the Sam Raimi or Steven Soderbergh route and become a studio director-for-hire, but instead he’s stuck close to his roots, continuing to produce quality movies in and around Long Island and New York City.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas strikes me as Burns’ most mature work to date. His earlier films dealt almost superficially (though in my teens and early twenties it didn’t’ seem that way) with familial strife, everything finding a pat resolution inside 90 minutes. In his latest he tackles more issues than I think he’s ever attempted in a single film and find space for as many as nine characters to express complex feelings and to grow. By Edward Burns standards, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is almost epic in scope.

Burns plays Gerry, the eldest son of Rosie and Jim Fitzgerald and the only one of nine children living at home, the result of having lost his way after the death of his fiancée on 9/11, a fact mercifully only implied by the dialogue. At the opening of the film he’s trying to get all the brood together for Rosie’s 70th birthday, which falls an unfortunate two days before Christmas. It turns out Gerry needs to discuss the issue of their estranged father wanting to spend the holiday with his old family after walking out on them twenty years earlier. Things are further complicated by Jim’s terminal cancer. Rosie is justifiably unforgiving despite appeals from her Priest, an old friend and neighbor, and some of her kids.

The kids range in emotion from disdain to love for their father, with some ambivalent holdouts in the middle. The youngest of the children are the toughest nuts to crack. Now at first I thought this was an error in Burns’ screenplay. It seemed to me that the oldest would have been the most hurt and thus most likely to withhold forgiveness. But Burns either has witnessed this kind of family dynamic firsthand or he’s got good instincts as a writer because ultimately I was convinced he scripted it correctly.

Not only do the emotions of the seven children (cast with a who’s who of stock players from the Edward Burns acting company) run the gamut, but also their various domestic situations and problems. In addition to Gerry, there’s Dottie (Marsha Dietlein), whose separated from her husband and has been having an affair with a younger man; Cyril (Tom Guiry) is the youngest, just released from rehab; Erin (Heather Burns) has a happy marriage and infant son and has been secretly taking their father to his oncology appointments; Connie (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is in an abusive marriage; Quinn (Michael McGlone) is reaching middle age and looking to settle down with his latest flame; Sharon (Kerry Bishé) is the youngest daughter and is possibly working out some daddy issues by dating a wealthy older man. I suppose if you have a big enough family, you’re going to find a slew of dramatic issues lurking.

Gerry is the glue that binds everything together. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t left home. He internalizes the guilt his father should feel for having left. Without Gerry around all the time, you get a feeling some of Rosie’s kids would rarely, if ever, come round to visit. It’s enough of a struggle just to get them to pop in for her birthday, after all. Gerry even confesses late in the movie that sometimes he wishes he could just tell his whole family to figure out their problems on their own and see what happens. I don’t know if there are families like this or if there are people like Gerry who feel the weight of family bearing down on their patriarchal shoulders, but what Burns does so well is convince us that these are real people. The writing is good enough and true to life so that we look past the fact that the actors bear almost no physical resemblance to one another and even have, in some cases, completely different accents.

The remainder of the cast is filled out by Connie Britton, who started out in Burns’ first film The Brothers McMullen and has gone on to a wonderful television career. She plays a possible love interest for Gerry. There’s also the fantastic Broadway star Anita Gillette as Rosie and Ed Lauter, a great Hollywood character actor as Jim. It turns out Lauter bears a striking physical resemblance to Burns, a fact that surely didn’t go unnoticed by his casting director.

As a native Long Islander, there’s something special about watching an Edward Burns movie. There have been other directors from Long Island, but no one evokes the same sense of location that he gets by using real locations, shooting in real homes that aren’t decorated by a professional set designer. When his camera roams a neighborhood, or parks outside a house, or sits in a kitchen or living room, they are all places I grew up seeing. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas always feels lived in, from the sets to the characters. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you aching for more if only so you can learn a little more about these people and see what becomes of them as they tackle the problems they face, problems that Burns has learned don’t necessarily all need to be resolved in ninety minutes.

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