The big Irish family at the center of The Fitzgerald Family Christmas have a double whammy come year’s end: celebrating the birth of their mother in addition to the birth of Christ. But as Gerry, the well-meaning prodigal son played by writer-director-star Edward Burns, tries to gather everyone together, Burns has almost as much trouble cobbling a believable movie in this by-the-numbers production from his patented assembly line.
The film suffers from an overload of characters battling an anemic script. Fitzgerald spends an inordinate amount of its running time with various members of the super-size clans reciting aspects of their life stories to each other in order to fill the audience in on who they are and what makes them distinct from one another. (Would a brother not know where his sister went to college or how old she was, even if they are more than a decade apart?) This is how we learn that the oddly-named Gerry Fitzgerald (again, really?) has played surrogate dad to his six younger siblings ever since his father, Jim (Ed Lauter) left his Long Island home and wife, Rosie (Anita Gillette).
And so we meet Erin (Heather Burns, unable to defeat her baseline whiny delivery), married to a well-off Jewish atheist husband (yes, they exist) and with a newborn son; dimwit but successful Quinn (Michael McGlone, a vet of Burns’ The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One), dating a woman closer in age to much younger sister Sharon (Kerry Bishé), who in turn is dating the much older, ahem, F.X. (Noah Emmerich); Dottie (Marsha Dietlein Bennett), separated from her husband due to an affair with a much younger lawnmower man; Connie (Caitlin Fitzgerald), a pregnant nurse married to an ungrateful hubby; and Cyril (Tom Guiry), the youngest, fresh out of rehab for a very elliptically described habit.
Gerry has been talking with Jim, who wants to see his family at Christmas since he is ill, and it will likely be his last. As the holiday approaches, and all siblings come up with unexplained reasons to avoid Rosie on her birthday, the Fitzgerald clan splits when it comes to forgiving or ignoring Jim for his past misdeeds. In the meantime, both Gerry and Rosie visit their ailing next door neighbor, Mrs. McGowan (Joyce Van Patten). At one point, Gerry had dated her daughter, but she died, we are led to believe, on September 11, 2001, a month before their intended wedding (we don’t learn how, or why exactly this has led Gerry to stay at home with Rosie and manage the family bar). Mrs. McGowan seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, though, because when Gerry meets her new nurse, Nora (Connie Britton, also a McMullen grad) it’s kismet. Even Gerry opts to spend time with her instead of Rosie on her birthday, a choice that goes unacknowledged and unindicted.
Burns understands the mechanics of domestic film storytelling well, and he has cast a solid stable of actors to fill out the Fitzgerald family tree. But what he doesn’t grasp, after nearly two decades behind the lens, is how to let a film sit. He conjures up absurd situations to give each of his motley crew of characters a storyline, when their natural personalities could emerge independently. Quinn and Sharon abandon their beloved without any notice – let alone a car – during a getaway trip to help out Connie in a crisis, then demand they find a way back to Long Island immediately. (Again, really?). And Burns doesn’t always justify comments characters assert about each other. We never learn why Rosie is accused of giving special care to Gerry because we do not see her treat the rest of her brood any differently.
What we do see is a couple of old-time pros hard at work, making even the slimmest of scenes that much sturdier. It is a joy to see the estimable Lauter, Van Patten and especially Gillette work their magic. And they add a dash of authenticity to a movie that creates an otherwise inorganic sense of family. This critic would reunite to see them again any time.