This Christmas

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It's a busy holiday "This Christmas" as the Whitfield clan gathers at the matriarch's house. For those keeping score during the three-day gathering, there is one divorce filed, one secret marriage and pregnancy revealed, two guns pulled, one whipping, two beatings, a catfight, one arrest, a destroyed SUV and one very badly cooked meal. Good thing the Whitfields don't extend the holidays to New Year's.

Writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II throws enough soap opera for an entire TV season into a story that nearly -- but not quite -- sinks from the weight of all these implausible events. Animated acting and the sheer chaos of this squabbling family give the film a comic buoyancy.

While the events are too absurd to apply to any ethnicity, the filmmaker and cast are black, so that's the demographic to which this Screen Gems release will be marketed. How much crossover the film will attract depends on marketing, but in any event the film might play more widely on cable and video.

Nearly every family member who enters the splendid old Craftsman house of Ma Dear (Loretta Devine) in Los Angeles' West Adams district has at least one secret. Because Whitmore's theme is that blood is thicker than water, strange indeed is his portrayal of family life as riven by secrecy, petty jealousies, distrust and outright animosity. Oh well, everything will be just fine by the time Christmas dinner gets served.

Ma Dear has divorced her husband, Quentin Sr., who long ago "moved on," yet she tries to keep this and her live-in relationship with Joe Brown (Delroy Lindo) a secret. The only one who is clueless, though, is Quentin Jr. (Idris Elba), a jazz musician who's been on the road for four years, so he has an excuse.

Daughter Lisa (Regina King) brings her blatantly philandering, control-freak husband, Malcome (Laz Alonso), and all that baggage. Son Claude (Columbus Short) shows up with his Marine uniform but not his secret (and white) wife, Sandy (Jessica Stroup). College girl Mel brings along her latest beau, Devean (Keith Robinson), while Kelli (Sharon Leal) brings a lot of attitude that comes with a big ad agency job.

Quentin Jr. surprises everyone by actually showing up, though he neglects to tell anyone that two thugs are on his trail. And the baby brother, Baby (Chris Brown), still lives at home, afraid to leave or tell his mom about his singing ambitions. Then the hoods show up, and they get invited to stay.

Amid the constant tiffs, everything gets revealed and put right. Every actor gets several big moments on camera. Baby gets to sing not once but twice. And Christmas dinner looks scrumptious.

Not a single moment feels even slightly real, but then, Kaufman and Hart's chaotic family comedy "You Can't Take It With You" never felt real, either. Whitmore is more of a stage manager than director as he executes the entrances and exits with tongue-in-cheek deftness. His eye is not always on the ball, though, as characters are sometimes inconsistent, as are the actors.

Tech credits are solid in all areas.


THIS CHRISTMAS
Screen Gems
Rainforest Films
Credits: Screenwriter-director: Preston A. Whitmore II
Producers: William Packer, Preston A. Whitmore II
Executive producers: Paddy Cullen, Damon Lee, Ronnie Warner, Mekhi Phifer
Director of photography: Alexander Gruszynski
Production designer: Dawn Snyder
Music: Marcus Miller
Costume designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Editor: Paul Seydor
Cast:
Ma Dear: Loretta Devine
Baby: Chris Brown
Quentin: Idris Elba
Lisa: Regina King
Joe: Delroy Lindo
Gerald: Mekhi Phifer
Devean: Keith Robinson
Claude: Columbus Short
Kelli: Sharon Leal
Mel: Lauren London

Running time -- 118 minutes
No MPAA rating
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