ALMOST CHRISTMAS – Review
So, we’ve been seeing the slow trickle of “Oscar bait” serious films the last few weeks, as the big escapist blockbusters go into hibernation (yes, a few more will pop up with prequels to Star Wars and Harry Potter, and another Marvel superhero glided in last week). Well, what also arrives in the multiplex is the holiday family “dramadies” (laughs and lots of heart-tuggin’). And this is an early bird, not even waiting for December to gather a big cast under the sparkly tree. But hey, it only a couple of days earlier than last year’s lump of coal in your movie stocking, LOVE THE COOPERS. So think of that flick mixed with more than a touch of 2013’s THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY, and you’ll realize, even though you’ve not started cooking the turkey, it’s ALMOST CHRISTMAS.
During the opening titles we get a montage of many moments from “Christmas past”, going back to 1971, all in the life of Walter Meyers (Danny Glover), the owner of a chain of auto repair shops based in Birmingham, Alabama. His four children grow before our eyes as he enjoys the sweet potato pie lovingly made by his adored wife Grace. Sadly, just after last year’s festivities, the family matriarch passed away, leaving a lonely Walter pondering whether to sell the old house. But not before having one last five-day Christmas celebration, gathering all the kids now spread out across the country. Eldest daughter Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), a successful Chicago dentist flies in with hubby Lonnie (J.B. Smoove), a fast-talking former NBA star. Locally based son Christian (Romany Malco) drives in with his wife Sonya (Nicole Ari Parker), two kids, and campaign manager Brooks (John Michael Higgins). Seems Christian is running for office and can’t relax, despite Sonya’s pleading. Struggling single mother, Rachel (Gabrielle Union) takes some time off from law school to hop on a bus with her pre-teen daughter Niya (Nadej k Bailey). And then there’s Walter and Grace’s late in life son (a “happy accident”) Evan (Jessie Usher), a college basketball star hoping to make the big leagues if he can get past the effects of an on-court injury. But the first to arrive is Walter’s sister-in-law, the boisterous May (Mo’Nique), formerly a touring back-up singer (name a star and she’s worked with them), who is determined to help him with everything. Let’s see, Christian’s a workaholic, relations are strained (to say the least) between sisters Cheryl and Rachel, Lonnie’s got a “roving eye”, and Evan’s harboring a dark secret. With Walter (who’s determined to recreate the pie recipe from his late wife) and May’s efforts, will they be able to last under the same roof though Christmas morning?
Pretty big cast, eh? So, let’s begin will the film’s true “scene stealers”. We’ve not seen much of Mo’Nique on the big screen since her Oscar win, so her work as Aunt May (not that one!) is as close to 3D as a 2D flick can get. Her flamboyant energy bounces off every wall of the theatre. Whether she’s whipping up a strange, exotic buffet (does she think everyone will dig right in?) or spewing insults with the force of a gattling gun. Mo’Nique dominates the story (making us wish the film makers would cut back to her during some dull stretches). She’s complimented by and often squaring off with, the terrific Smoove (so wonderful on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) as the motor-mouthed con man Lonnie. He even gets to display his gangly grace in several slapstick scenes invoking another holiday icon Clark Griswald (especially as he tries to repair a faulty Santa decoration). But he’s at his best when Lonnie’s in full panic desperation mode in the film’s last act. Some smart producer should really pair up this two in a marriage comedy. The other stars don’t get as much of a chance to really shine.The gorgeous Union has played a variation of this hard-edged, hurt by romance character in countless “rom-coms” and TV films. She and Elise make good sparring partners, but Ms. E doesn’t have her big moment until a big last act reveal. Malco (hilarious in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN) is pretty much a straight man, particularly with Christopher Guest staple Higgins who’s an awkward laugh riot. Glover is world weary and exasperated (yes, he does his signature line). Usher injects some youthful energy, especially in the scenes with his full-of-swagger best bud Eric (DC Young Fly). Parker has little to do while Omar Epps is saddled with the cliché role of the now single neighbor, a high school crush of Union.
Writer/director David E. Talbert tries to keep the story moving despite feeling the need to slow things down for sequences that have become family flick staples (dancing to old pop tunes in the kitchen, the touch football game, etc.). The attempts at pathos and drama almost produce a whiplash effect when they abruptly follow or interrupt the comedy. It’s not enough that Walter’s a recent widower, he must have a connection to a local shelter which Christian’s political ambitions threaten. Too much time is lost to the pie subplot (I kept wondering if the recipe was hidden with the secret egg salad formula from the Woody Allen classic WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY?), and a sharp turn into a substance abuse story nearly flips the film off its bearings. Plus some things just ring false particularly when lil’ Nya suddenly channels Dr. Phil and lays out all of mom Rachels’ emotional baggage. But the holiday sights and sounds are lovely enough to satisfy all the Christmas flick fans. And when Mo’Nique and J.B. Smoove are working their comedy magic, ALMOST CHRISTMAS goes down like a sweet cup of egg nog.
3 Out of 5