Almost Christmas

Watching this humorous film is like getting a funny Christmas card that makes you laugh uncontrollably as it warms you heart. This ode to the joy and angst people feel as their family reconvenes for the certain chaos, gluttony and joy during Christmas, is a nice way to start the holiday season. It's a very entertaining stocking stuffer.

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(Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)
The cast of the holiday film Almost Christmas.

Under writer/director David E. Talbert's (First Sunday) guidance you know there will be equal parts comedy and inspirational message. Toss in producer Will Packer's (Think Like a Man) sensibility and you can pile on the silliness and bawdy humor. What's on view is a raucous comedy that feels almost TV sitcommish. It's seasoned with enough soap opera-ish drama to make you laugh at the characters, be astonished by their schemes and heartened by the way they resolve their problems.

Walter Meyers (Danny Glover, The Color Purple), the successful owner of several auto repair shops, eagerly awaits the arrival of his four adult offspring and their extended families back to the home they grew up in Atlanta. He looks forward to their smiling faces, is somewhat saddened that his late wife of many years won't be there and is frankly wondering if his kids can set aside their differences for five days so they can enjoy the holidays. Fat chance.

His youngest daughter Rachel (Gabrielle Union, The Birth of a Nation), a perpetual law student who is low on funds, brings her young daughter and the grudge she bears for her older far more successful sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise, For Colored Girls), a politician. Big sis is coming with her flaky, roving-eye basketball hero-only-in-his-own-eyes husband Lonnie (JB Smooth, Top Five).

Christian (Romany Malco, Think Like a Man), the oldest son is running for a local political position and no one knows if he can forget campaigning long enough to focus on the family. His wife Sonya (Nicole Ari Parker, Murder in the First) is skeptical. Evan (Jessie T. Usher, Independence Day: Resurgence), the baby of the family, a popular football player recently sidelined by a shoulder injury, is just getting off the DL and is hooked on painkillers, unbeknownst to the rest of the clan.

And if that isn't enough spice in the house, Malachi (Omar Epps, Love and Basketball), Rachel's old high school fling and neighbor, is hot on her tail. Alan, (John Michael Higgins, Pitch Perfect), Christian's campaign manager is working on a gentrification scheme that's in conflict with the downtown area that's home to a shelter where Walter's wife worked. Evan's old friend Eric (DC Young Fly, Hollywood Hearts) is supplying him with drugs. And he's also hitting on Evan's saucy Aunt May (Monique, Precious). She claims: "I got vibrators older than that child!"

Surprisingly African-American Christmas movies are quite prevalent: A Madea Christmas (Tyler Perry, Tika Sumpter), The Best Man Holiday (Monica Calhoun, Morris Chestnut), This Christmas (Loretta Devine and Chris Brown), The Perfect Holiday (Gabrielle Union and Morris Chestnut) and Last Holiday (Queen Latifah and LL Cool J). So what sets this one apart? It's refreshing that the central character Walter is the silver-haired patriarch of this robust family.

And to add a bit of hot pepper to the mix, Aunt May, played with verve by scene-stealer Monique, adds just enough naughty humor to please adults and not frighten the MMPA film rating censors. As she walks into Walter's house, May says to her brother-in-law: "Where's the liquor? I hope it ain't that dark liquor. Because that dark liquor will make a bitch want to fight."

Playwright-turned-filmmaker David E. Talbert has a very assured style that involves "comedy in the midst of chaos." One minute there's a verbal brawl and the next moment everyone is laughing at themselves. This rhythm serves his plays and screenplays well, keeping audiences engaged through the often-complex dynamics of friendships, marriages and relationships while learning that many problems are surmountable. Comparisons to Talbert and Tyler Perry are inevitable. The difference is that Talbert is far more consistent at bringing the story, characters, direction, acting and production quality of an entertaining comedy/drama to a higher plain than the very prolific and rich Mr. Perry.

Gabrielle Union and Kimberly Elise rattle off catty one-liners like they were schooled on Edward Albee's vicious Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Nicole Ari Parker flits around the set like a moving target that never gets hit, bringing the right amount of buffer to testy situations. For female viewers, Epps is the romantic ex-boyfriend who got away. Usher and Young Fly will keep the younger audiences engaged. JB Smooth is hysterical as the out-of-touch playboy who is courting disaster.

Perhaps the smartest bit of casting was giving Danny Glover the role as the dad and referee. His apt skills bring more to the role of Walter than most actors could summon. Strong, humbled, determined and embittered are just some of the emotions he shows over the course of 1 hour and 52 minutes. When he screams to his out-of-control family "It's my house," there is no question; he is the lord of the manor.

The second coup is having Monique spice up Aunt May to the point that you're belly laughing even before she opens her mouth. Where the hell has she been for so long? And for those who wonder if she really deserved her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the film Precious, wait until you see final scenes when it is just her and Danny Glover talking about the sweet potato pie her sister used to make at the dining room table. Exceptional acting.

John Paesano's impassioned musical score is supplemented with appropriate soul, pop and jazz tunes like Etta James singing the sultry "The Very Thought of You." Wynn Thomas' production design and Marthe Pineau's set decoration make Walter's house an enviable abode and the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly a perfect place for extramarital flirtations. Larry Blanford's photography and lighting give the footage a warm glow. The editing by Troy Takaki gives the proceedings a solid beat.

If you're looking for Shakespeare, try another theater. If you want a good stick-to-your-ribs family comedy that will make you chuckle and forget your troubles, pull up a chair and sit down.

Very delightful. The spirit of the holiday season is in the house.

Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.