Holiday family reunions are often dispiriting events, and so are most movies about them. “This Christmas” isn’t among the worst—just think “Home for the Holidays”—but it’s hardly a festive gem.
What sets Preston A. Whitmore’s picture apart from most others in the genre is that the Whitfield family that congregates at the matriarch’s place in LA for Yuletide is African-American. But all it proves is that under the skin, everybody’s the same: the problems—and easy solutions—are precisely the sort you’ll find in all movies of this ilk.
Ma’Dere’s (Loretta Devine) husband Senior abandoned her and the children years before for a musical career, but she kept up the remarkably spacious house on her own—apparently by running a small dry-cleaning store (something that seems, on the surface, a bit unlikely). She’s taken up with an old family friend, Joseph (Delroy Lindo), apparently a funeral home owner—a relationship that bothers her elder son Quentin (Idris Elba), who isn’t aware that his mother’s divorced his father and remains devoted to the memory of his roving dad. He’s close to Senior in another way, too, being a kind of musician-hobo himself.
Quentin arrives unexpectedly home for the holiday, pursued by two comic thugs trying to collect a gambling debt from him. He’s welcomed by Ma’Dere with open arms even though it means Joseph must pretend not to be living with her. All his siblings are playing games of I’ve-got-a-secret, too. Sister Kelli (Sharon Leal) is a hard-bitten but lonely businesswoman looking for romance, which she finds with fireman Gerald (Mekhi Phifer). Another sister, Lisa (Regina King) is coping with the fact that her yuppie husband Malcolm (Laz Alonso) is not only philandering but pressuring her to persuade the family to sell mom’s store. Younger sis Mel (Lauren London), a college student, is hiding her intimacy with Devean (Keith Robinson), the boyfriends he brings with her. Then there are the other two boys. Marine Claude (Columbus Short) is curiously ill-at-ease and anxious to get out of the house alone, and we’ll soon learn why. And baby Michael (Chris Brown) has talents and career plans he feels compelled, for reasons dealing with the family history, to keep from his mom.
With all the deception swimming around, you can be sure that there will be plenty of misunderstandings and bickering. But it’s all pretty genial, with the occasional darker moment quickly passed, the warm ones emphasized and the broader comic ones played for all they’re worth. And, of course, everything turns out all right in the end.
“This Christmas” is as smooth and soothing as a cup of eggnog, but not much more satisfying. The cast are amiable, the writing predictable but inoffensive, the direction competent but not outstanding, and the physical production nice. But the picture doesn’t really come alive until the very end, in an impromptu “gauntlet” dance routine in which each performer steps forward for what amounts to a curtain call. Its vigor sets the blandness of what’s preceded it into sharp relief.
So “This Christmas” isn’t ho-ho-horrible, but it’s pretty ho-ho-hum.