Saturday, November 24, 2012

'Fitzgerald Family Christmas' is the Best of Edward Burns (and Christmas!)...

'Tis the season to feel all the feelings...

When I was younger, She's The One was my favorite film. It was a simple relationship drama in which emotions and character drove the story. It didn't rely on crazy plot twists or a big, inciting incident at the end of every act to hold attention. Instead, what held my attention were the nuances in performance and realism in dialogue. It was a movie to celebrate writing and acting and people in general. I fell in love. Edward Burns was the kind of storyteller I wanted to be-- and the fact that he was doing it on his own terms, independently, sealed the deal. Way before Jason Katims and Friday Night Lights, I found my preferred genre-- in a movie.

My infatuation started early, but admittedly it was not an all-consuming, consistent love. Some of Burns' films snuck by me; with others my life was moving too fast to catch them in their specific "in theaters" windows. In college I took some time to marathon those I had missed, but soon after I turned my attention and career towards television and more were probably lost in the shuffle. An old friend from my She's The One days brought Fitzgerald Family Christmas on my radar-- and on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, no less. It must have been fate, right?

Fitzgerald Family Christmas is classic Burns at its best. He has always had a very specific, very relatable point of view, but more importantly he has always had something to say. Burns doesn't just make movies to feed his family; he makes movies because he has stories he needs to tell. That is obvious here, but what is even more striking is just how much we-- and especially I-- need these stories, too, right now.

Fitzgerald Family Christmas tells the family of a big Irish family and the oldest son Gerry (Burns) at the center of it tasked with the impossible: spending Christmas as one big, united family. To most other filmmakers, the story would be in just how hard a feat this is because all of the kids are grown and in relationships of their own with families of their significant others to worry about. Hilarity would ensue for awhile as there were bumbles with missed flights or wrong gifts or sassy kids not wanting to spend the holidays in Grandma's low-tech household. The fact that the youngest just got out of rehab would be the cause for conflict or inciting incidents. But Burns has never been your typical filmmaker, and Fitzgerald Family Christmas is truly a rich family drama that just happens to be set at the holidays.

In this case, the cause for tension is the fact that the Fitzgeralds' estranged father wants to spend Christmas with his kids. He walked out on his family decades earlier, and the youngest ones don't even really remember him. Yet, after all of this time he has perhaps grown a conscience, perhaps just realized how alone he really is (it depends on what side of the emotions you fall down), and he asks Gerry to help convince his brothers, sisters, and mother to let him back in the family home. Even though he is undoubtedly a trigger for his youngest, who-- did I mention?-- just got out of rehab.

As the oldest, Gerry has taken the brunt of his father's shortcomings. When his dad was around, we learned in a brief exchange, he did beat his kids occasionally, but that is not the element anyone wants to focus on because it was his absence for all of the pivotal years that really caused the longest-lasting pain. Gerry had to step up and take care of his brothers and sisters, his mother, the house, and even the family business. When he laments that he "never had a choice," my heart broke because people always have a choice but in being so determined not to be the man his father was, the choice was already made for him. And now his father has the nerve to come back and ask for such a big favor when he has never done anything to deserve it.

There is a scene in which the kids are sitting around with their aged father, and he turns to specific ones (the youngest ones) and apologizes for not being there for them. It's a moment of breakthrough in their relationships because he has never been so sincere or simply present, and it inspires them all to try to put the past behind them (what their father's future looks like, however, seems like it is the main factor in why). However, he never turns to Gerry and extends him the same courtesy. And Gerry doesn't say a word. This is a moment that so clearly defines Gerry's character, and what we learn is even more heartbreaking. He stood up and fought for his family, but he won't do so for himself. So I stood up and screamed at the screen for him. 'You don't think you owe Gerry, you ungrateful bastard? This kid set aside his own life-- his own dreams-- to fix your mistakes. He's a man now, and he's still here, coming to your defense, trying to clean up your mess! F*** you!' I found myself holding my breath, waiting-- hoping Gerry, if he couldn't find those words himself, would just get up and walk out of the room, and his brothers and sisters would see that action and understand its weight. That moment never came, and I was never sadder for Gerry.

Here's the thing about Fitzgerald Family Christmas: I have no doubt the Fitzgeralds' ultimate decision was supposed to be one to lift the audience up at the holidays and remind everyone to show love, forgiveness, and general kindness to those in their lives while they're still in their lives. Giving an old man one last good memory, if it's not hurting anyone, is the right thing to do. However, such a strong decision needs to be earned, and though I feel from a screenplay standpoint it was (Burns certainly proved his big heart here!), from a personal place, I could not have been more uncomfortable watching some of the Fitzgeralds just sit back and bite their tongues and not air all of their grievances toward the man who abandoned them and therefore whose fault it is they are all emotionally stunted, in various small ways. From a personal standpoint, I had a really hard time believing, in the long run, some of them wouldn't be hurt more by letting this kind of selfish guy back in at such a time of generally high emotions. Burns has certainly stirred up a lot with one short film.

Intellectually I know this is because of my own anger and resentment I harbor towards my father. He did not abandon my mother nor I when I was young, but he should have. When you grow up thinking very specific ways, feeling very specific ways, and doing very specific things because of it, there may always be a little sense of "What if...?" lingering over you. I know there is for me. I think back to a few years ago when my mother told me she couldn't come to my house for Christmas because it would be her last, and I remember, without a second thought, making arrangements to go to her. I think a lot about what would have happened then (or in a few more years) if it was my father on the other end of that phone call. It is the truest test of character. In the end, the Fitzgeralds were all pretty well-adjusted and definitely good people. Whether they're role models or a cautionary tale, though...well, that all depends on how well-adjusted you are.

I am a Grinch. But Burns is teaching me to be a better person.

There is not a weak link in Burns' cast, punctuated by the always grounded and fabulous Connie Britton as a new woman in Gerry's life who becomes a confidante and a shoulder to metaphorically cry on when the stress just gets to be too much. Heather Burns and Kerry Bishe were fresh breaths of air in understated roles that could have faded a bit into the background if not for these phenomenal performers. Of course, it's always a pleasure to see Michael McGlone alongside Burns; the two men have such a similar sensibility but with Burns' quiet observation to McGlone's more over, and sometimes sarcastic, inner NYer serve to balance each other out, too. The heart of this film really rested with Anita Gillette, though, whose struggle weighed on all of us, but thankfully she was allowed a few moments of joy, too.  

I'd feel remiss if I didn't also point out just how smart Burns was as a director with Fitzgerald Family Christmas. He seemed to know just how complicated his tale was, with so many characters, right from the beginning. Rather than dive into expositional monologues of who everyone was, though, he let them speak for themselves, over time, as anyone would get to know anyone else in real life. He eased the audience in, unveiling more and more about each person as time went on, using music cues to call back to the previous time we saw the characters to instantaneously remember who they were and in relation to those currently in the scene with them. It made the film that much more grounded and memorable and yes, emotional
Clearly Fitzgerald Family Christmas will stir up a lot of conflicting feelings in its audience. The best kind of art or media, in my opinion, inspires passionate reactions-- on any end of the spectrum. The best kind of art or media delivers a strong point of view that challenges your own. We all bring baggage to consumption, and it is the gray area where our beliefs mingle with the filmmaker's message that provides the richest viewing experience. Clearly that happened for me with Fitzgerald Family Christmas. I hope it happens for you, too.

Fitzgerald Family Christmas opens in select theaters on December 7th but is available to rent on iTunes now.

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