We Like our Christmas Films Wrapped in Dysfunction

There's no place like home for the holidays, Perry Como once crooned.

That might be. But in the case of Hollywood's depiction of such sentimental journeys, you might want to head for the hills instead — especially if your relatives happen to be at home when you arrive.

From Jimmy Stewart's suicidal patriarch in 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life" and Maureen O'Hara's super-rational working mom in 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street" to Chevy Chase's disaster-prone dad in 1989's "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and Tim Allen's can't-win divorced father in 1994's "The Santa Clause," family dysfunction is the gift that keeps on giving at the movies.

That's especially true this year with three releases that attempt to put new wrapping paper on an old package:

•More, but not merrier. After his turn as St. Nick's resentful sibling in last year's "Fred Claus," Vince Vaughn is back and bickering again in the comedy "Four Christmases," opening Nov. 26. He and Reese Witherspoon must face what is many an adult child of divorce's worse nightmare: When fog prevents a romantic getaway to Fiji, the marriage-phobic couple is forced to visit all four separate parents and their extended families on Christmas Day.

"These people have the guts to do what most of us can't," says Seth Gordon, director of the video-game documentary "The King of Kong," of his feature debut. Meaning, they brush off their holiday obligations each year, lie about their intentions and fly off to a tropical isle.

Such an idea isn't that crazy. About 18% of the more than 1,500 respondents in TripAdvisor's holiday travel survey last year said they planned to "escape" from their family at Christmastime. The No. 1 most-desired spot to flee to? The Caribbean.

A heartfelt holiday

In the movie, however, "the pair's vacation plan backfires, and it exposes how their overall philosophy is childish," Gordon says. "They need to make a commitment to the next step of their relationship, whether marriage or having a baby. The houses they visit represent the extremes of how little they know each other and what they want."

•A twist on traditions. Following in the racial and ethnically diverse footsteps of the African-American gatherings featured in last year's This Christmas and The Perfect Holiday comes Nothing Like the Holidays, due Dec. 12 and set in Chicago's Puerto Rican community.

Freddy Rodriguez is a troubled soldier just back from Iraq who endures more than the usual family upheavals during his homecoming, including a run-in with an old flame and a surprise divorce announcement.

"We wanted the film to feel familiar and comfortable," says director Alfredo De Villa (Washington Heights), whose cast also includes Elizabeth Peña and Alfred Molina as Rodriguez's at-odds parents. "I embraced the fact that it has mass appeal. What is radical is that it is essentially a brown family. They just happen to be Puerto Rican."

That means pastelles are eaten and the ritual of parranda, a kind of group caroling, is observed in between crisis moments. But De Villa, whose background is Mexican, also wanted to preserve the story's sense of personal sacrifice for the benefit of the community — not unlike "It's a Wonderful Life."

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