The Fitzgerald Family Christmas manages the considerable feat of interweaving the personal dramas of nine members of a boisterous Irish-American clan into a coherent mosaic with a streamlined narrative drive.
This meditation on forgiveness in the season of glad tidings may lose some steam as it speeds to very predictable places, but it doesnt turn into a tear-stained greeting card plastered with tinsel and stale peppermints.
This comfortably lived-in movie, written and directed by Edward Burns, offers a textbook example of screenwriting concision. Volumes of information and drama are conveyed with minimal dialogue in a tone so relaxed and offhand you hardly notice the painstaking craftsmanship that went into it.
Burns shuffles this dense material with the dexterity of a card shark. The pace, although swift, is never rushed. The writing and acting give you vivid enough tastes of the characters there are seven children, two parents, and assorted spouses, lovers and friends so that each registers as a singular flavor.
The ensemble includes some of Burns go-to favorites and some of the same actors from his directorial debut in 1995, The Brothers McMullen, which won an Independent Spirit Award for best first feature and the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Together, the actors convincingly evoke the familial and social bonds connecting working-class Irish-Catholic Long Islanders.
Burns is stouter and ruddier than he was 17 years ago. He plays Gerry Fitzgerald, the self-appointed peacemaker and surrogate father figure of a quarrelsome, high-spirited brood of grown-up children he tries to corral for the 70th birthday of their mother, Rosie (Anita Gillette). That birthday falls two days before Christmas.
Gerry, his mothers darling, owns a nearby tavern and has lived at home since an unspecified tragedy related to Sept. 11. Twenty years earlier his father, Jim (Ed Lauter), abandoned the family. Now Jim, who is broke and ailing, is pestering Gerry to persuade Rosie to allow him to join the family for Christmas dinner.
Besides Gerry, the more sharply etched characters include his new possible sweetheart, Nora (Connie Britton), the serene caregiver for a friend of Rosies; and his hot-tempered brother Quinn (Michael McGlone), who fancies younger women.
The others include Gerrys frightened youngest brother, Cyril (Tom Guiry), who is just out of rehab; and Erin (Heather Burns), her fathers favorite, who has married outside the Roman Catholic faith.
The movies attitude is mostly nonjudgmental. Its moral fulcrum is the question only Rosie can answer: Should she allow Jim back into the fold?