What’s the Gaelic word for schmaltz? Whatever it is, there’s plenty of it in Edward Burns’ new feature “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” which goes back to Queens to tell the story of a large Irish-American family dealing with the return of the father who abandoned them 20 years earlier. Writer/director/lead actor Burns returns to the territory of his charming breakout hit “The Brothers McMullen” and its follow-up “She’s the One,” but this time, neither the humor nor the lightness of those previous films leaven this overly gooey Christmas pudding.
Burns plays Gerry Fitzgerald, the oldest of seven adult children, and the one who lives with and cares about their mother, Rosie (Anita Gillette). Although none of the others seem to have moved far from the small Queens house they grew up in, they can’t manage to get to the birthday party Gerry is desperately trying to organize for his mother two days before Christmas. Gerry needs to bring the clan together to discuss whether their father Jim (Ed Lauter) will be allowed to come home for Christmas. Jim left the family when he sold his business for a bundle and has had almost nothing to do with them since.
The other siblings are introduced in short scenes meant to establish who they are, but there are too many to keep track of or to get to know in any meaningful way. The oldest are Gerry, Erin (Heather Burns), Dottie (Marsha Dietlein Bennett) and Quinn (Michael McGlone). Erin is married to a well-off Jewish guy and seems to be suffering from post-partum depression. Dottie has started an affair with the lawn boy and thrown her husband out. Quinn is dating a woman barely out of college whom he intends to propose to on Christmas Eve at a ski resort.
There’s a younger group of siblings who have their own problems: Connie (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is seeing a much-older man, Sharon (Kerry Bishe) has an abusive husband, and Cyril (Tom Guiry) is just out of rehab. Any two or three of these stories would have been enough to fill a screenplay, but altogether they bog things down. The movie feels weighed down by all this turmoil, just as Rosie’s house seems filled to bursting with all these people.
Gerry lost his fiancée on September 11, and there is a gloom that hangs over the film caused by more than the characters’ personal problems. But if Burns wanted to say something larger about the American loss of innocence through these troubled characters, he doesn’t succeed. The film is too scattered, and Burns’ performance as Gerry is too wooden to express much of anything. Connie Britton of “Friday Night Lights” brings a lot of warmth to a small part as a nurse tending to the mother of Gerry’s late fiancée, but we don’t see enough of this relationship to become invested. Caitlin Fitzgerald as Connie is the only one who fully expresses the resentment the rest of them supposedly feel, and more of that astringent anger would have given the film the snap it needs. Instead, we have a bland mish-mash with way too much schmaltz.