Edward Burns didn't get much box-office mileage from the recent cop-drama "Alex Cross," but he did get a valuable piece of advice from his co-star Tyler Perry. As Burns tells the story, Perry asked why he'd abandoned the Irish-American audiences who made his 1995 debut, "The Brothers McMullen," such a hit. "Take it from me," Perry said, "you gotta superserve your base."
As a result, Burns is back on home turf with "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas," which focuses on a large clan reuniting on Long Island and was filmed all over the area, including in Burns' hometown of Valley Stream. Featuring nine Fitzgeralds, plus friends and neighbors, it's stuffed fuller than a Christmas bird, and with more than a little corn. But this low-budget film is also a genuine charmer with appealingly natural performances and the kind of holiday warmth that can't be manufactured.
Burns plays Gerry Fitzgerald, a salt-of-the-suburbs type who runs a local tavern and pays regular visits to his ma, Rosie (a wonderful Anita Gillette). He's trying to herd the siblings together for Christmas dinner, a job made even harder this year by the sudden appearance of Jim (Long Beach's Ed Lauter), the father who abandoned them. The news triggers varying reactions -- from cheerful acceptance to seething rage -- and dredges up years of intra-family drama.
"Fitzgerald" benefits from a fine cast in the sibling roles, particularly Michael McGlone (a "McMullen" veteran) as the rough-edged Quinn and Kerry Bishé as snotty Sharon. Connie Britton (ABC's "Nashville") feels like an afterthought as Gerry's love interest, Nora, but on balance this movie hits more true notes than false ones. Tyler Perry is thanked in the credits.
PLOT A large Irish-American clan reluctantly reunites on Long Island. Unrated
BOTTOM LINE Writer-director Burns returns to his native terrain with this holiday-season charmer. Warm, natural performances make up for the occasional false note.