Film Review – Almost Christmas
‘Tis the season, once again. With the holidays rolling in, so comes the holiday movies. This time, writer/director David E. Talbert gives us the family comedy, Almost Christmas (2016). If you’re a fan of Christmas movies, then you’ll see a lot of the usual clichés here: the dysfunctional family, the sibling rivalries, the food, the decorations, and so on. This is the kind of story that lays out its issues and then solves them oh so neatly by the end credits. And while Talbert is blessed with a charismatic cast (their chemistry alone very nearly saves the film), he doesn’t develop the characters well enough to really pull at our heartstrings. There are plenty of laughs, but Talbert misses badly when he tries to shoot towards genuine sentiment. It works better as a screwball comedy but he doesn’t seem to realize it.
Danny Glover stars as Walter, the patriarch of the Meyers’ family. Walter suffers a tough loss when his wife of many years suddenly dies. Still grieving but remaining optimistic, Walter looks forward to the upcoming Christmas where he will be reunited with his children again. However, given that his wife did most of the holiday preparations around the house, Walter isn’t quite sure how to get things done (one of his biggest challenges is trying to make pumpkin pie the way his wife used to do it). Also, his children have been at odds with each other for years, something that’ll throw a wrench into the whole reunion. Can they all survive living together until Christmas? Oh, the suspense!
Each of Walter’s kids have their own set of issues. Rachel (Gabrielle Union) dreams of becoming an attorney, but the struggles of low money and being a single mother put that dream on hold. Rachel has had a long standing feud with her sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), whose snarky remarks constantly get under Rachel’s skin. Cheryl is married to Lonnie (J.B. Smoove) an athlete whose biggest accomplishment is playing in a foreign country. Things get dicy when Lonnie starts having eyes for pretty grocery store clerk Jasmine (Keri Hilson). Walter’s son Christian (Romany Malco) seems too busy trying to run a political campaign than spend time with the family. And Evan (Jessie Usher) is a talented college football player who has developed an addiction to pain medication.
Whew, that’s a lot to go over. The different characters and plot threads hinder Talbert’s narrative. By structuring such a large cast, none of them are entirely fleshed out. They are just shades of quirks and eccentricities, and none of the problems they have pan out to be anything significant. Do we really care about the animosity between Rachel and Cheryl? No, because we know where all of this is going to end up. It’s hard to take things seriously in a holiday movie that includes a scene where everybody suddenly breaks out into a dance routine in the middle of the kitchen. The most egregious example is Evan. Addiction to pain medication is a very serious problem, one that cannot be dealt with overnight. And yet, Talbert lightly touches it as a means to bring the family together. When things are going good, the drug problem doesn’t exist.
Perhaps the weakest character here is the one that is barely on screen. The presence of Walter’s wife hangs in every frame, even if she is a dead character. Family members reminisce about her in such an exuberantly loving way that we wonder if she was actually a human or a saint. She solved everybody’s problems, and she cooked food worthy of a five star restaurant. Whenever Walter daydreams about her, she’s shown in a golden hue, blowing kisses towards the camera. Hell, she’s so perfect that she even made it a priority to volunteer at the local shelter every year. Didn’t she have any flaws? Did she have any weaknesses, superstitions, or hang ups? The movie tells us that Walter’s wife died ten months prior to the current events. In all that time, the family never came together to work their issues out?
The saving grace of Almost Christmas is the strength of the cast. There are some really talented people working here, and they all shine especially bright in the comedic scenes. Mo’Nique, who plays Walter’s sister in law, flamboyantly struts around as a woman who can’t let go of her glory days as a backup singer to the stars. J.B. Smoove gets a lot of laughs in his role, even though his character is too slick for his own good. Gabrielle Union has ample opportunity for screen time, and her character’s little romantic fling with the next door neighbor (Omar Epps) is cute despite being fairly shallow. Even Walter’s grandchildren get to share the spotlight, displaying millennial-era skill as they pass texts between each other using emojis or capturing crazy moments on video to post on social media.
There is a lot of potential in Almost Christmas that isn’t fully realized. When Talbert allows his cast to let loose and have fun, that affection reverberates from the screen. When he decides to dial it back and take things seriously is when we run into trouble. He goes through the basic outline of a plot with a cast capable enough to go beyond that. He’s playing classical music while everyone else is playing jazz. And because of that, the end result – while entertaining at times – is predictable and utterly forgettable.