One of those “home for the holidays” pieces that mix laughter and tears in approximately equal measure, David E. Talbert’s “Almost Christmas” proves to be a far from festive cinematic experience. It has the usual ingredients—a big, dysfunctional family filled with colorful characters (including, of course, some precocious kids) who bicker endlessly between hugs and spontaneous dances; a shared sense of grief that must be tearfully confronted; some romantic complications; and a helping of slapstick, culminating in a raucous Christmas dinner sequence where all the pent-up antagonisms and secrets burst forth in full glory. Unhappily, the resultant dish is, despite an excellent cast, about as palatable as all the disastrous sweet-potato pies the family patriarch tries to make using his late wife’s recipe—until the perfect one he manages at the close, of course. Add this to the long list of Christmas-themed movies that come across like lumps of coal rather than presents under the tree.
Danny Glover plays Walter Meyers, a retired owner of auto-repair shops in Birmingham who’s grieving the recent death of his beloved wife Grace (Rachel Kylian) and, unbeknownst to his children, is planning to sell the house they shared. He’s invited his entire family to spend the days leading up to the Christmas holiday at the old homestead. So there soon appear on his doorstep his sons Christian (Romany Malco), an aspiring politician, with his wife Sonya (Nicole Ari Parker)—and his campaign manager Brooks (John Michael Higgins)—and Eric (Jesse Usher), a college football star nursing a shoulder injury and an addiction to painkillers. Then there are his daughters Rachel (Gabriel Union), a divorcee struggling through law school, and Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), a dentist whose husband Lonnie (JB Smoove) is an erstwhile NBA player—and still a player, it turns out, in another way. For some reason the sisters dislike one another intensely. Joining them all is Grace’s tart-tongued sister May (Mo’Nique), a flamboyant sort who’s been a back-up singer for lots of famous stars and lets everyone know it. Straggling along are the children, including Rachel’s adolescent daughter Niya (Nadej K. Bailey); they’re all, of course, adept at filming embarrassing moments on their ever-present cellphones to post on social media.
There are also a few non-family members added to the mix: Malachi (Omar Epps), the guy next door who’s obviously sweet on high-school classmate Rachel; Jasmine (Keri Hilson), the supermarket clerk Lonnie hits on; and Eric (DC Young Fly), a home-town chum of Eric’s who can also supply the drugs he needs. And that’s not counting the folks at the local homeless shelter Grace helped to found, or those at the neighborhood church they’ll all attend, or the fat-cat entrepreneurs willing to bankroll Christian’s campaign if he’ll support their scheme to tear down buildings for their new project—including, of course, the one that houses the aforementioned shelter.
That last plot thread, incidentally, appears to be a hobby-horse of Talbert’s. In his previous picture “Baggage Claim,” he had another black dude (played by Taye Diggs) running for Congress and hobnobbing with corrupt donors. The weird part in both cases is that the supposed campaigns are happening after election day in early November (“Claim” was set at Thanksgiving, this movie at Christmas). Do the candidates not know whether they’ve won or lost? Or if the election is still months off, why is Christian putting up lawn signs? Or is it just a measure of the writer’s contempt for his audience’s intelligence that Talbert wouldn’t even consider the chronology a matter of consequence?
In any event, you know where “Almost Christmas” is going to wind up from the get-go, beyond the holiday itself. The sisters will reconcile; Uncle Lonnie will embarrass himself repeatedly, and his womanizing ways will be revealed to his wife; Aunt May will trash-talk everybody in sight; Eric will finally be compelled to confront his addiction; Malachi will overcome Rachel’s unreasoning resistance to his charms; Christian will remember that principle trumps political expedience; and Walter will finally produce a sweet-potato pie as tasty as the ones Grace used to make. These revelations in no way constitute spoilers, as they are foreordained parts of a slavishly-followed template that allows not the slightest deviation from the standard formula.
What little entertainment the movie provides comes from the cast, a stellar group. Glover maintains his dignity even when reduced to sending up his character from “Lethal Weapon,” while Union, Elise, Epps, Usher, Malco and Parker all prove agreeable people to spend some time with, even though both Union and Elise are compelled to carry one especially poor scene, in the one case involving a stuck window and in the other a shotgun. Mo’Nique and Smoove are by far the biggest laugh-getters, though it’s arguable that the inevitable outtakes during the closing credits are funnier than their scenes in the picture. Technically the movie has the glossy look of a nicely-wrapped package, thanks to Larry Blanford’s cinematography, though it must be said that Birmingham looks a lot like Atlanta.
“Almost Christmas” will have a short shelf-life; it’s unlikely to be around in theatres when the actual holiday rolls around. And the only place where it’s fated to serve as a perennial will be some basic cable outlet. It’s too bad that so attractive a cast was burdened with trying to inject some fun into such piffle, but as “Baggage Claim” suggested, Talbert might not be capable of anything better.