We can thank Tyler Perry – the savvy multihyphenate who has amassed millions by cross-dressing as Madea and churning out indie comedies – for the unpretentiously ingratiating delight that is The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.
No kidding: Edward Burns, the writer-director and star of the yuletide-themed dramedy having its H-Town debut this weekend at 14 Pews, admits that he might not have made this movie had it not been for a conversation he had with Perry while they were co-starring in Alex Cross.
Edward Burns admits that he might not have made this movie had it not been for a conversation he had with Tyler Perry.
Burns, you may recall, burst upon the indie movie scene 17 years ago with The Brothers McMullen, a richly humorous and deeply heartfelt comedy-drama about an Irish-American clan. The picture earned top honors at the Sundance Film Festival, enjoyed considerable box-office success – and immediately inspired those trendspotters who love to label up-and-comers to christen McMullen as “the Irish-American Woody Allen.”
And yet: Although Burns has made several other indie movies (including the under-rated Sidewalks of New York) and worked steadily as an actor-for-hire (most notably, in Saving Private Ryan) since his Sundance triumph, he’s never really gone back to his roots.
As Burns told me last September at the Toronto Film Festival: “In the 17 years since McMullen – and also She’s the One [his 1996 follow-up flick] – I had never gone back and sort of re-explored that sort of Irish-American working-class world or milieu that I wrote about in those first two films.”
Which Tyler Perry pointedly called to his attention one day over lunch during the production of Alex Cross.
“Tyler had just re-watched Brothers McMullen,” Burns said, “and he asked me the question: ‘Why haven’t you gone back to that world?’ And quite honestly, I did not have an answer, other than, well, there wasn’t a story I wanted to tell. Or the idea didn’t present itself in the last 17 years.
“And he said, ‘Look, take some advice from me: Super-serve your niche. I guarantee you, there’s a bunch of folks out there, Irish-Americans, who loved those first two movies, and who’d love to see another story in that world.’
“And I swear: We were having lunch. I left lunch, I walked into my trailer, I opened up my laptop – and I wrote, ‘Interior. The Fitzgeralds kitchen.’
“Six weeks later, I had the first draft of the script. And I never write a screenplay that quickly.”
Both sides of the camera
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas actually showcases Burns at his best on both sides of the camera. His dialogue rings true with its deft balance of blunt-spoken humor and emotionally charged vernacular, while his straightforward directorial approach is eminently suitable to his material.
And as an actor, he’s in top form as Gerry Fitzgerald, the oldest of seven children born to Josie (Anita Gillette), the feisty Irish-American matriarch with whom Gerry still lives in their New York neighborhood family home.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas actually showcases Burns at his best on both sides of the camera.
Early on, the movie makes it very clear that Gerry never finds it easy to corral all his self-absorbed siblings for any family-centric celebration. This Christmas, however, the round-up will be more difficult than usual: Big Jim Fitzgerald (Ed Lauter), the father who walked out on the family 20 years earlier – and who now, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, wants to spend one last holiday with his estranged wife and children.
Initially, Josie is openly hostile to the idea of even a one-day reunion with Big Jim. (It speaks volumes about their rocky relationship, and her enduring bitterness, that she initially can’t — or won’t —believe he’s telling the truth about his medical condition.) But Gerry senses only slightly more enthusiasm for the holiday reunion from his brothers and sisters – three of whom have never really known their dad.
Burns is generous when it comes to divvying up tasty (and truthful) dialogue among the members of his ensemble cast. But it must be noted that two of the team players assert themselves as standouts.
Britton scores again
Connie Britton (a Brothers McMullen vet currently shining in ABC’s Nashville) effortlessly conveys intelligence, compassion and down-to-earth sensuality as Nora, a family friend’s nurse who provides comfort and joy for the stressed-out Gerry.
And veteran character actor Ed Lauter shrewdly underplays as Big Jim, somehow maintaining your sympathy even as his character shamelessly indicates that, never mind what harm or havoc he’s caused in the past, he feels pretty damn entitled to enjoy one last Christmas with his family.
“I think that’s part of Jim’s dilemma as a person,” Lauter said last month during our on-stage Q&A at the Denver Film Festival. “He doesn’t really consider the reactions of his family. He’s just put them in the back of his mind, and has gone on with his life.
“But now he’s realizing that his time is short. And he’s re-evaluating himself. And he maybe wants to make amends, and see if he can go back -- and see if he can reconnect with his kids at this point.”
Lauter – whose credits range from Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard and Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot to last year’s Oscar-winning The Artist – ranks Big Jim among the best roles he’d ever landed. (“Really,” he said with equal measures of gusto and gratitude, “it’s put me back on the map.”) And he thinks he knows why Burns gave it to him.
“When I first started out,” Lauter told the Denver Festival audience, “I always thought, ‘Oh, I want to work with this great actor, or that great director.’ All these wonderful dinosaurs.
“Well, now I’ve become one of those dinosaurs, I guess.”
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday at 14 Pews.