The pumpkins are barely starting to rot, and you know what that portends: the annual glut of holiday-themed entertainments. Almost Christmas, the first to hit the big screen, represents the latest example from the formulaic, dysfunctional-family sub-genre that usually makes disastrous real-life family gatherings seem blissful by comparison.
Written and directed by David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim), the film depicts a family coming together for the holidays soon after their beloved matriarch has died. Widower Walter Meyers (Danny Glover), a well-off, retired automotive engineer, hosts the gathering at his comfortable home in Birmingham, Alabama. (Having apparently failed the audition, the city is instead played by Atlanta).
The attendees include Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), Walter’s oldest daughter; her sister Rachel (Gabrielle Union), with whom she has a contentious relationship; oldest son Christian (Romany Malco), an ambitious politician running for Congress; and much younger son Evan (Jessie T. Usher), who’s becoming hooked on painkillers while recuperating from a recent sports injury.
Also on hand are Aunt May (Mo’Nique), Walter’s diva-like sister-in-law; neighbor Malachi (Omar Epps), Rachel’s old high school boyfriend; Sonya (Nicole Ari Parker), Christian’s wife; Lonnie (JB Smoove), Cheryl’s horndog husband, a former pro basketball player; and Alan (John Michael Higgins), Christian’s ever-present campaign manager.
Attempting to mix emotional pathos with broad farce, the film fails on both levels. Its most dramatic plot elements revolve around Walter’s ability to replicate his late wife’s sweet potato pie recipe and his decision to sell the family house without informing his children. And the action consists of one familiar-feeling moment after another. You can rest assured that when a character confidently strides onto the roof of the house to fix a broken Santa Claus statue, he’ll fall off and won’t suffer a scratch. That the family members will spontaneously burst into joyful dancing in the kitchen. That the politician’s wife will resent his workaholic ways. And that the politician will ultimately do the right thing when it comes to the homeless shelter that his mother cared so much about. Not to mention adorable tykes constantly sprinkling nuggets of wisdom to the clueless adults.
The film reaches its nadir when Cheryl, having discovered that her husband has cheated on her when his latest paramour (Keri Hilson) shows up at the house for a family dinner (don’t ask … it’s far too contrived and complicated to explain), promptly threatens him with a shotgun. Cue the audience hilarity, although one suspects that if the gender roles were reversed, viewers wouldn’t find the confrontation so uproarious.
The cast is first-rate, and deserves far better material. Glover manages to maintain his dignity, although when he mutters, “I’m too old for this shit,” in a winking reference to his famous Lethal Weapon line, you get the feeling he really, really means it. When Union’s half-naked character gets stuck halfway through an open window, all the scene proves is that broad physical comedy is not the actress’s biggest strength. And Smoove and Mo’Nique, who not surprisingly deliver the biggest scenery-chewing comic turns, are far funnier in the outtakes shown during the end credits than in the film proper.
Set during the five days leading to the titular holiday, the meandering, sluggish Almost Christmas almost seems to take place in real time.
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Production: Perfect World Pictures, Will Packer Productions
Cast: Kimberly Elise, Omar Epps, Danny Glover, John Michael Higgins, Romany Malco, Mo’Nique, Nicole Ari Parker, JB Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Jessie T. Usher, Keri Hilson, DC Young Fly
Director-screenwriter: David E. Talbert
Producer: Will Packer
Executive producers: Lyn Sisson-Talbert, David E. Talbert, Preston Holmes, James Lopez, Gabrielle Union, Jeff Morrone
Director of photography: Larry Blanford
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Editor: Troy Takaki
Composer: John Paesano
Casting: Kim Coleman, Andrea Craven, George Pierre
Rated PG-13, 111 minutes