Along with global-warming denial and Justin Bieber, we will someday have to explain to our children that there was a time when American movies were so starved for the merest flash of real life that reworking a formula was enough to brand a filmmaker an indie-cinema savior. The story of Edward Burns’s rise from Entertainment Tonight PA to overnight Sundance sensation was practically made for the movies, but for the better part of two decades now, he’s displayed little more than competence.
In a sense, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas brings Burns full circle. The writer, director and actor has returned to the Irish-American melodrama of his 1995 debut, The Brothers McMullen, charting the overlapping crises of a half-dozen siblings, all intensified by a proposed holiday visit from their long-estranged father. (The cast even includes two McMullen alums: Michael McGlone and Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton.) Burns’s Gerry Fitzgerald, who for years subbed for his deadbeat dad as family patriarch, is nursing the grief of his wife’s death like an aged Scotch; his sister has an unemployed husband who turns violent when she turns up pregnant; another brother is just out of rehab, and so on. There are a few nicely turned moments, such as when Ma Fitzgerald (Anita Gillette) sneaks her daughter’s infant off to a clandestine baptism with the help of her Jewish son-in-law, but they’re scattered plums in a starchy, flavorless pudding.
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