At a certain point—say, four films into the Ed Burns oeuvre—being disappointed is no one’s fault but your own. There is a somewhat pleasant sameness to the writer/director’s films, like shuffling off to the old neighborhood pub every weekend. Everyone looks the same, sounds the same and concerns themselves with the same issues: weddings, funerals, procreation, childhood memories, the troubling matter of ambition…what beers are available on tap.
Burns’ eleventh film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, about a tribe of adult siblings debating whether or not to include their dying dad who abandoned them all some 20 years ago in their holiday celebration, is promised in press materials as a return to “the Irish-Catholic/working class milieu” of The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One. This supposes one believes Burns ever left that milieu; I would argue he has merely taken his same point of view on a jaunt, traversing the sorts of locations and situations that a byproduct of an Irish Catholic/working class milieu who made it good might encounter. In other words, following a similar path to the one Burns has been on since The Brothers McMullen’s out-of-nowhere Sundance win in 1995. For instance, Burns’ 2006 film The Groomsmen, shot in and around City Island, New York, and featuring Burns as a successful writer reluctantly marrying his pregnant girlfriend and Donal Logue as his resentful brother trying get his own wife pregnant, looked a lot like The Brothers McMullen Having Babies to me.
With The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Burns amps up the number of siblings to seven, thereby ensuring that the viewer will stay alert desperately trying to sort out who are brothers, sisters or possibly just attractive bystanders. The movie features an all-star cast of Burns’ faithful regulars, including Nashville’s Connie Britton, who played his sister-in-law in McMullen and here plays Burns’ love interest. His character, Gerry, is the stay-at-home sibling who runs the family restaurant, cares for their mother Rosie (Anita Gillette), plays intermediary for the wayward dad (Ed Lauter) and tries to corral his siblings into doing right on holidays and special occasions. Burns’ characters in Burns films tend to be either churlish wise guys (Nice Guy Johnny) or sweetie pies just trying to figure it out; Gerry is distinguished from the crowd of sweetie pies mainly by being older, greasier (talk about dressing down) and nearly saintly.
Gerry’s six siblings include a reasonably successful financier brother (Michael McGlone, one of the original McMullens) who is—what else?—debating getting married, a fresh from rehab brother (Thomas Guiry) and four sisters. One is the family slut (Marsha Dietlein), who hasn’t let age slow her down, one is primarily notable for being mean (Heather Burns), another (Caitlin Fitzgerald) for being abused by her lousy husband, and the sassy youngest (Kerry Bishé) for trying to catch up with the family slut. This crowd of stereotypes creates such a cacophony of conversation, resentments and rivalries that it is a challenge to sort out who, if anyone other than Gerry, to care about.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas was shot in the locations Burns has always favored; recognizably New York outskirts but very everyman (places like Queens Village and Valley Stream on Long Island). The Fitzgerald homestead and the old, rundown neighborhood feels plenty authentic, but in Fitzgerald, as with every Burns’ film I’ve seen, so little action takes place that really, the setting could just be adjoining couches, with characters shouting affectionate quips and insults at each other. Other than the debate over letting Daddy come for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at the homestead on Christmas day (the matriarch Rosie says over her dead body), the primary action lies with Gerry improving his life. Having spent many years in mourning for a fiancée killed on September 11, Gerry is, as they say, ready to love again, as in, about three minutes after he first lays eyes on Britton’s character Nora, a nurse doing homecare for Gerry’s woulda-been-mother-in-law (Joyce Van Patten). They’re gentle and relaxed together, and I applaud the casting of Britton, who looks and acts the right age for Gerry, but even a modicum of dramatic tension over whether these two are going to hook up would have added some zip to the story.
Suspense isn’t Burns’ thing though, and it may be foolish to even ask for it this far into his career. Burns has made it crystal clear what his style is: lots of chatty, mostly amiable folks, working out their not so troubling differences in the greater New York metropolitan area. In the beginning, with those McMullen brothers, Burns was pegged as an Irish-American Woody Allen, and he built himself a small but loyal fan base as a result. But even Woody travels these days and occasionally casts his net in unexpected directions. (Were we delighted by Midnight in Paris because it was so good, or because it was so goofily different from Woody’s norm? The latter, I believe.) Burns is too content in his own past to ever become a revolutionary filmmaker. But he could get off the proverbial couch, travel, meet some new people and show some of the spark he brings to his actor-for-hire work. He gave more energetic performances in two lame movies this year, the awful Alex Cross and the forgettable Man on a Ledge, than he does in his own labor of love. See how I keep rooting for him? I like a neighborhood bar too.