I had planned to start off this review wondering just where the hell this Edward Burns has been all these years. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is so achingly lovely a film, so full of bittersweet melancholy and yet so fixedly hopeful without ever having to touch on the sentimental, that it reminded me so hard why I fell in love with Burns’ work with his Brothers McMullen all those years ago. I felt like he’d abandoned us since 2001’s Sidewalks of New York (another perfect film). But then I looked at Burn’s IMDb page and discovered that he’s made a bunch of movies between then and now and I’d never even heard of them. How can that be? How can I be a clued-in critic, a film professional, for Christ’s sake, and not have been aware of his work? How is it that his unpretentious little cinematic gems — which I think it’s safe to assume those films I missed also are — go so wholly unrecognized?
The answer, apparently, is that they go to festivals and then straight to DVD, never getting the benefit of even a limited theatrical release. But that’s no answer! It’s absolutely criminal that his films don’t get seen. Maybe they’re just too real for mass audiences? Cuz Fitzgerald is a spot-on portrait of middle-class Irish-American life on Long Island, reflected through the pre-Christmas familial turmoil roiling among the adult Fitzgerald siblings, their various romantic partners, and the clan’s divorced parents. Dad (Ed Lauter: Trouble with the Curve, The Artist) wants to have Christmas dinner in the family home that Mom (Anita Gillette: Shall We Dance?, The Guru) vowed he’d never step foot in again after he walked out on her and the kids 20 years ago, and now it’s left to Gerry (Burns: Friends with Kids, Man on a Ledge), the eldest, to handle the negotiations among them — not everyone wants Dad around — while also coping with all the crap that his younger siblings expect him to let them pile on him. Nothing major, just all the usual life stuff of who’s mad at whom and who’s going through a breakup with a significant other, that kind of thing.
But it’s through that careful piling on of everyday minutiae that Burns creates the recognizable webs of love and frustration and tenderness and more frustration and affection and I’m-gonna-fuckin’-kill-that-guy that family life is all about. Burns wrote the script as well as directed, but this hardly feels “written” — it feels like he simply hid cameras around a real family and captured their lives. No, it’s not escapist… but there’s something deeply satisfying and reassuring about it, in its affirmation of the normality of it all. This is a movie to come away from and sigh with relief that it’s not just your family that’s like that.
Part of this is all me: Burns’ world is my world too — he could easily be one of the cousins in my big Long Island Irish-American family. He and I are nearly the same age, too, so we share a lot of the same perspective. But it’s more than that, too. There’s no Hollywood pretense here about how regular people live. Houses are small and messy, not immaculate McMansions out of a Pottery Barn catalogue; Christmas decorations are cheap and plastic; there’s no fluffy white snow on the ground because it’s “the holidays” because that’s what on the Christmas cards — it’s just cold and dark and miserable, because that’s what Long Island actually is at the end of December. It’s not all misery, though: Christmas morning, with all the Fitzgerald girls and Mom in matching funny Christmas pajamas, and Gerry walking in the door holding up a brown paper bag and announcing, “I got the bagels!”? That is Irish-American Christmas on Long Island, so beautifully encapsulated it makes me weep with nostalgia.
The real power of this film, though, comes in how it doesn’t merely avoid pretending that Christmas is all festive cheer, doesn’t merely concede that Christmas is pretty damn stressful for many people — it embraces the negotiation and the accommodation that being a member of a family demands, especially at this time of year, as a good thing, as a feature of family life, not a bug.
And now, thanks to the miracle of modern Internet technology, it doesn’t matter if none of the handful of screens in the U.S. this is playing on are near you. (It’s adding a few screens tomorrow. See the official site for a listing.) The film is available on demand — probably from your cable company, but definitely from Amazon and iTunes. (Sorry, my U.K. readers: no one seems to have figured out how to do a global on-demand release yet. Though I have no doubt such a day is coming.) See this movie. You have no excuse not to.